City halts disability pension of weightlifting firefighter

John Sauro (WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence Retirement Board on Wednesday voted unanimously to suspend the accidental disability pension of retired firefighter John Sauro, who was seen in Target 12 undercover video weightlifting at a gym.

In an 11-0 vote, the board cited “new evidence” to suspend Sauro’s pension benefits immediately. The vote means he will not receive his monthly pension check for December and thereafter, but will continue to receive health benefits.

Sauro’s attorney, former state Rep. Joseph Voccola, said they will immediately file suit with the Rhode Island Superior Court to overturn the board’s decision.

The new evidence in the case was presented during a lengthy closed-door meeting with the board and Sauro’s attorney. Assistant City Solicitor Kenneth Chiavarini declined to say what the evidence was.

“The city provided evidence to contradict the medical documentation provided by Mr. Sauro,” Chiavarani said.
Voccola also declined to offer any details.

During open session, Chiavarnini said Sauro has repeatedly declined to be examined by a Massachusetts doctor who specializes in shoulder injuries and has done work for the Boston Celtics.

Voccola said his client is merely following the orders of two separate doctors that he should not do so.

“This man is not trying to avoid having a doctor examine him,” Voccola said. “He’s being told right now not to travel to that facility due to his present medical condition.”

He declined to specify what medical condition is preventing Sauro from traveling to Massachusetts, but said Sauro might be willing to be examined at home.

During the hearing Chiavarini said the city received a letter from a psychiatrist stating Sauro was suffering from “crippling anxiety” that has left him bedridden, preventing him from traveling out of state.

The former Providence firefighter was awarded a tax-free accidental disability pension in 2000 for a shoulder injury he said he got on the job. In 2011, a Target 12 investigation revealed Sauro was an avid weightlifter at a local gym.

Sauro received a monthly benefit of $3,902.24, according to the latest financial records. The pension is tax-free, but he takes home $3,830 a month.

The city has attempted to halt Sauro’s pension in the past. In 2012 a Rhode Island orthopedic surgeon concluded Sauro was “not fit” to return to work but suggested he undergo further testing, including an updated MRI, according to previous retirement board meetings.

Voccola told the board politics was outweighing legal compliance in this case because “politically, if you’re an elected official or appointed by an elected official to this board, the public’s going to be angry because of the footage it sees.”

“We’re going to have to litigate the matter in court because I don’t believe anyone here is going to say, ‘Well I believe John Sauro has been treated in an unfair manner,'” Voccola said. “That would probably be the most politically disastrous statement that anyone could make.”

In response, Chairman Lawrence Mancini said his decisions were free of influence.

Voccola pointed out to the board that his client was cleared of criminal wrongdoing in 2011.

The hearing began with Chiavarini giving the board a complete history of the travel of the case, which spans nearly three years.

Chiavarini said most recently the city set up a July 2013 appointment for Sauro with the Dr. Brian McKeon in Waltham, Mass., but they were contacted by Voccola who said Sauro didn’t have to go because language in the city ordinance stated the doctor had to be “a mutual agreement or at the place of residence.”

“I tell you that language was the language in place from the 1923 [Providence] retirement act; it had never been changed,” Chiavarini told the board.

He said the appointment was canceled and soon thereafter the Providence City Council removed the language from the act, no longer restricting where the exam could take place. The Human Resources Department then once again attempted to send Sauro to the Massachusetts doctor.

Chiavarini said the city then received an email from Sauro’s wife stating “his health issues and financial restraints prevented him from traveling out of state.”

The city tried to reschedule again but was then sent a doctor’s note telling the city Sauro was in no condition to travel, leading to today’s hearing to suspend his pension.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @white_tim

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