A District retirement board decided to approve the disability pension of Fire Chief Burton W. Johnson after hearing testimony that he aggravated a sore back while examining a float at the Cherry Blossom Festival, in striking his head on a timber, while bending over a filing cabinet and when he lifted a carton of Coca-Cola at his home, it was learned yesterday.
After considering these and other injuries, including one suffered in a fall from the roof of a house on fire in 1943 and others in two off-duty automobile accidents, the Police and Fireman's Retirement and Relief board voted 6 to 0 Thursday that Johnson had a bad back aggravated in the line of duty, making hime eligible for a $33,250 tax-free pension.
The board's vote also was unanimous in favor of Assistant Police Chief Tilmon O'Bryant, qualifying him for a $32,840 pension exempt from income taxes.
The board never announces its decisions, let alone any details of individual cases. But as details of the system are disclosed with the disability retirement of high ranking police and fire officials, public criticism appears to be mounting.
Aides at Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton's office and at the International Brotherhood of police Officers reported that their telephones were swamped yesterday with calls from citizens complaining about the retirement system.
Eagleton (D-Mo.), who is conducting hearings on a bill to revise the system, said his week that retirement benefits for District of Columbia policemen and firemen are "more lavish than in any other city in the country," and that they system is full "egregious abuses."
Eagleton said that the retirment of Johnson and O'Bryant, and the retirement last month of police chief Maurice J. Cullinane, "raises the question of whether they are simply trying to get on the gravy train before Congress acts to correct the obvious abuses in the retirement system."
Mayor Walter E. Washington still has to approve Johnson's retirement, but that is expected to be a formality.
Johnson has been wearing a back brace since 1969 and sometimes is in such pain he cannot stand, his lawyer told reporters after the board appearance.
According to informed sources, Johnson's doctor, Samuel Q. Mitchell, did not establish before the board exactly what caused the chief's injury, which was diagnosed as a "degenerated disc". Testimony did establish that johnson has a back injury that was aggravated while on duty and that he is now diabled, these sources said. Under the law, that is sufficient to qualify him for the maximum disability pension, 70 percent of his salary.
Mitchell told the board that Johnson's pain was sufficient to be disabling. Asked by reporters row Johnson could have passed his physical examination to become chief in 1973, the chief's lawyer, John Middleton, said Johnson's condition has grown drastically worse in recent years.
In O'Bryant case, testimony from Dr. Robert F. Dyer, director of the police and fire clinic, was persuasive, according to informed sources. Dyer told the board O'Bryant was in danger of suffering a fatal stroke if he remained on duty.
The stress of O'Bryant's job had led to headaches and high blood pressure, Dyer testified. O'Bryant suffered a dizzy spell in his office last week and was found to have dangerously high blood pressure, sources said.
O'Bryant is known to be a health enthusiast who jogs regularly, and Dyer, in response to a board member's question, explained that he had prescribed such exercise to improve O'Bryant's circulatory system.
Doctors not familiar with all the details of O'Bryant's case noted yesterday that jogging can lead to high blood pressure. A clinic pyschiatrist noted in aletter to the board that O'Bryant sustains "an increase of blood pressure at time of stress."
Dyer and O'Bryant were not available for comment yesterday.
According to informed sources, O'Bryant told the board he felt the police department had treated him well. Some reports had indicated that he had been upset after being passed over twice for promotion.
Johnson told board members that he plans to rest and perhaps spend some time with civic-oriented groups. O'Bryant told the board he plans to avoid situations involving stress.
In addition to his pension, Johnson collects about $300 monthly on the pension of his late wife, a former policewoman. Johnson's retirement salary is an undate of a lower figure previously supplied by the fire department.
The 12 doctors at the police and fire clinic recently signed a letter to D.C. Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson urging that they be given more flexibility in determining the degree of injury for a retirement applicant.
Under the present system, the board can find a man either disabled or not disabled and award him either nothing or from 662/3 to 70 per cent of his salary, based on years of service.
The proposed bill before Eagelton's subcommittee would allow [WORD ILLEGIBLE] evaluate an applicant's degree of disability and would allow the retirement board [WORD ILLEGIBLE] between 30 percent to 70 percent of his salary.