Gaithersburg Police Chief Also Collects Disability Pension From Montgomery County

By Dan Morse and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 9, 2009

After a long and distinguished career with the Montgomery County Police Department, John King made a request similar to that made by many Montgomery colleagues before him: He applied for a disability retirement pension, citing injuries first suffered years earlier.

But King's case had its own twist. He was about to start a second career as a police chief in Gaithersburg, a city in the county. His disability package application was approved, and he is now in his second year as chief. His total compensation tops $200,000.

To critics of Montgomery's police disability system, King's retirement shows how department veterans can cash out long after they've stopped performing the most physically demanding parts of a police officer's job. To his supporters, he is being justly compensated for years of working in pain and has done nothing wrong.

The case has caught the attention of federal authorities. The U.S. attorney's office in Maryland has subpoenaed records relating to King's hiring in Gaithersburg and retirement from the county, according to copies of the subpoenas. Prior to accepting the Gaithersburg position, King took a physical fitness test and was medically certified for the job, according to city attorney Lynn Board. Prosecutors have declined to comment.

At the request of The Washington Post, King's attorney allowed a reporter to review some of King's medical records that were submitted to Gaithersburg and county officials in 2007, the year he applied for disability and switched jobs. They show him clearly suffering from back pain.

King originally hurt his back in the early 1980s, when he and others had to subdue a violent suspect high on PCP in a hospital room. He again hurt his back in a car wreck and in 1993 while "lifting and carrying illegal drugs to an incinerator," the records state.

By 2001, medical tests showed, King had herniated disks in his back, for which he was treated with an epidural injection. He was named assistant chief in 2002, a position described as largely sedentary.

To qualify for disability benefits, Montgomery officers have long had to establish only that they weren't able to do any single aspect of police work. The Montgomery assistant chief job description carried a catch-all phrase: "Performs other related duties including those of sworn officers generally."

By spring 2007, Gaithersburg officials were talking to King about becoming their police chief. That April, he completed the fitness test. His results were mixed, according to a copy of the test. He scored in the upper level for leg, back and core strength and pulled a 160-pound dummy 60 feet. But his agility run was slow, placing him in the lowest of 20 brackets. King also was labeled a "medium risk" of back injury. The performance was good enough for him to become a member of the Gaithersburg force, city officials said.

On April 23, 2007, King accepted the Gaithersburg job. Three days later, according to city e-mails, he told Gaithersburg City Manager David B. Humpton he would be putting in for a disability pension from the county.

In an e-mail, King asked Margaret Kee, Gaithersburg's human resources director, to change the job description of the position he'd just accepted from "police officer" to "chief of police." State regulations require a physical fitness test to become a police officer but not to become a chief or assistant chief.

A county panel reviewing King's disability application sent him for an independent medical evaluation by a Johns Hopkins-affiliated orthopedist, who reported that he had reviewed Maryland state law and thought King's degenerative lumbar disk disease would interfere with work as an "officer" but not as a "chief."

Montgomery awarded him a tax-free disability pension of an estimated $88,000 for fiscal 2008, which represented better terms than a normal retirement.

"It's a contractual benefit," said Richard Finci, King's attorney. "He was entitled to it because he was injured."

Gaithersburg changed King's job description to chief of police in his second year. Kee, now Margaret Daily, said she initially resisted the change, believing it was unfair to those who might have applied had there been no physical fitness requirement. She eventually changed it at the request of Jim Arnoult, acting city manager, according to a 2008 e-mail from Arnoult to her. Reached last week, Gaithersburg Mayor Sidney A. Katz declined to comment on King's county disability retirement but said he is doing a "fabulous job."

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