Leggett Pushes Fixes in Disability Retirement

County Executive Isiah Leggett said the system for evaluating disability clams
County Executive Isiah Leggett said the system for evaluating disability clams "isn't working." (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Ann E. Marimow and Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) yesterday called for an overhaul of the government's disability retirement program, after an internal review found that a far greater percentage of the county's public safety retirees are collecting disability than those in neighboring jurisdictions.

In the past eight years, 34 percent of Montgomery's police, fire, corrections and sheriff's department retirees received service-related disability payments, compared with 25 percent in Prince George's County, 4 percent in Howard County and 3 percent in Fairfax County, according to a nine-month examination.

Leggett said the system for evaluating claims "isn't working the way it should and hasn't for some time."

The proposed changes come as Montgomery's independent inspector general is expected to issue a highly critical review of the system in September. One council member briefed on the initial report, Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), said the inspector general's findings are far worse than Leggett outlined yesterday. He said the timing of the executive's announcement appeared to be an attempt to get a "head start" on the problem.

Andrews said the overall figures in Leggett's internal review "are not the half of it" in terms of the seriousness of the problem. More than half of Montgomery's police officers who retired in the past three years, for instance, are collecting disability, according to Andrews and numbers provided by county officials.

Inspector General Thomas Dagley declined to release a preliminary report yesterday, but he said in a statement that draft findings and recommendations "address serious concerns." Investigators began their work in March and reported to Leggett's chief administrative officer on July 31.

Leggett said his interest in the issue predates the start of the inspector general's review and that his announcement was not intended to play down the extent of the problem. He said that he became alarmed by the high number of disability retirements soon after he took office in 2006 and after hearing several complaints about the case of former assistant police chief John King. King left the Montgomery Police Department June 1, 2007, and now receives disability while serving as Gaithersburg's police chief.

"A number of people were asking, 'How could that be?'" Leggett said of King's situation.

King said in an interview yesterday that he has three herniated disks and suffers constant back pain. The injuries go back to a 1983 incident when, as a Montgomery police officer, he and others had to subdue a violent suspect high on PCP inside a hospital room. King said he also was involved in at least three vehicle collisions and other altercations with suspects.

He said he applied for disability while still at the Montgomery department because he couldn't do his job as a "police officer," which he said was his status even in his position as an assistant chief. He said he also wanted to document the extent of his on-the-job injuries to make sure health-care claims would be covered.

"Eventually, it's going to require surgery," he said of his injury.

King said the disability was approved after he got his job as Gaithersburg's chief, which he acknowledged was sedentary in nature. He said he regularly works 55-60 hours a week as police chief, sometimes coming in at 3 a.m. because his back pain keeps him from sleeping.

Arthur Wallenstein, director of the county's Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, said he would not question specific disability cases. "Corrections can be dangerous work, and injuries are part of that endeavor," he said. "I do not believe decision-making is too lax, because every case must meet county and state standards."

Bruce Sherman, Montgomery's assistant sheriff, said deputies in his department have produced very few disability claims in recent years.

Retirees who qualify for service-connected disability receive two-thirds of their previous salary. In general, a police officer earning $93,141 who retires on disability after 25 years receives $62,097 a year tax-free compared with a non-disabled retiree who receives $55,885. The non-disabled officer's pay would drop to $38,578 when the retiree begins to collect Social Security. The disabled officer's pay remains the same.

Leggett's internal review suggests, among other changes, allowing the county to deny benefits to an employee who is fired for "intentional wrongdoing." Several of the officers who resigned last year after involvement in a widespread double-dipping case receive disability retirement benefits, according to county officials.

Jane Milne, secretary of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, said the recommended changes would be subject to collective bargaining.

"Only a few years ago, we agreed to a new disability process with independent doctors and appeals," Milne said. "It's a long process involving a lot of medical review."

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