NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - What New Orleans fire fighters do on a daily basis is inherently dangerous. But the city's inspector general believes something is seriously amiss in terms of the rate of fire fighters' disability retirement.
"Here, what we see is manipulation and deceit and we believe what occurred violated the law," IG Ed Quatrevaux said during a Thursday afternoon press conference.
He sent a letter to Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the City Council. In it, he wrote that the NOFD experienced disability retirement rates as high as 94 percent while the rate for fire fighters in the State Fire Fighters' Retirement System was 10 percent.
"This didn't happen without apparently the desire to bump these pensions up," said Quatrevaux.
"This is not an attack on fire fighters. This is about the pension board, and the pension board has created lucrative incentives that incentivize the fire fighters to go out on disability," said Assistant Inspector General Howard Schwartz.
Quartrevaux said in some cases fire fighters earned more with their disability benefits than they did in their last 12 months before retirement.
Here is how Quatrevaux responded when FOX 8 asked him who he thought was to blame for the "manipulation, deceit and violation of the law" he alleged: "The non-city members of the pension board, the fire fighters pension and relief fund," he replied.
"Ninety-four percent of New Orleans fire fighters go out in 2011, went out on a disability pension, six percent didn't, so we looked at these numbers and we said this is almost unbelievable, it doesn't seem reasonable. And the Fire Fighters' Pension Board basically said, 'Yeah, the numbers are high, but it's not unusual,'" said Schwartz.
The IG's office said bad practices have cost the city $150 million since 1999.
"The $150 million is so large that we could have instead of wasting this money through manipulation we could have had 22 miles of new streets with new drainage under it, almost as long as the Causeway," said Quatrevaux.
Schwartz said in May of this year they received information that numbers had been changed to improve the disability picture.
"They changed the numbers, two of the board members disagreed with using the much lower numbers. It's not recorded anywhere in the minutes. The only thing we can conclude is that it's done intentionally, it's done to deceive the public," he said.
City Hall representatives on the board are the fire superintendent and the finance director.
Schwartz spoke of other red flags in terms of disability approvals.
"Thirty-five of the fire fighters in the last three years had a slip and fall, or strain within one year of their actual retirement date. All 35 went to the same chiropractor and this same chiropractor diagnosed all of them as being disabled," he said.
But a well-placed source said that city representatives on the pension board went along with approving disability requests and that fire fighters seeking such approvals see three or four doctors, first among them the city's workman's comp doctor and also the pension fund's physician.
Mayor Landrieu issued a statement in response to the IG's letter:
"Our firefighters keep this city safe every single day, and I appreciate the work they do in the field. Last year, we reached a critical settlement that ensures that firefighters will get paid what they are owed in back pay from the 80s, 90s and 2000s, while keeping the City on a positive fiscal track, making major reforms to the pension fund and ensuring that it will be there for future generations of firefighters. Now, we need the pension fund to stand by the settlement agreement.
"As we made clear over our six years in office, the pension fund board's old way of doing business was not and is not sustainable. We still have issues to resolve to truly reform the system for good, including reigning in abuse of disability payments, which are costing taxpayers significantly, as well as making sure benefits are calculated in accordance with the law. The OIG has reaffirmed our position, and we are hopeful the Courts will agree on behalf of our taxpaying citizens we serve.
"At the end of the day, the stability and sustainability of the pension system is in the best interest of the City and firefighters, and fixing these issues will allow us to spend more money on citizen priorities like hiring police officers and fixing streets."
The IG's findings will be sent to prosecutors.
The Pension Board said it had no comment at this time because it had not read the report.
Nick Felton, head of the fire fighters' union said when contacted that he was in Baton Rouge gutting out homes for affected fire fighters and that he would not want to comment on pension fund issues are currently being litigated.