In ‘rare’ move, state cancels pension of retired firefighter

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In a move state officials describe as “rare,” the state retirement system has stopped paying the pension of former Coventry Fire District Chief Paul Labbadia.

In a letter to Labbadia’s attorney dated March 31, the executive director of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island, Frank Karpinski, said the move followed a review of records that found Labbadia did not put in the required years of service as a North Providence firefighter, “rendering him ineligible for a service retirement.”

According to the letter, Labbadia now has until April 30 to repay the retirement system $51,711.65 in payments that officials say he shouldn’t have gotten.

The $57,711.65 was received over two periods: between when Labbadia retired from North Providence in 2007 and when he took over as chief in Coventry in February 2008, and then for 75 days annually while he served as chief from 2008 through earlier this year. (State law requires pension payments to be suspended for all but 75 days a year when the recipient gets a new job.)

At issue is credit toward a pension that Labbadia claimed for his years as an “on-call” firefighter in North Providence during the early 1980s.

Per state law, individuals can purchase one year of pension credit for every three years they worked on call.

Labbadia had been working as a full-time firefighter in North Providence for only 17 years when he filed to retire in 2007. Needing 20 years of service to qualify for a pension, he reported that he’d worked on call for 10 years starting in 1980; he got three years of pension credits in exchange.

But in the wake of a Target 12 investigation last fall that raised questions of accountability about Labbadia’s tenure as a chief in Coventry, the state retirement system received an anonymous tip alleging Labbadia had not worked on call in North Providence as long as he claimed.

In a Feb. 12 letter to state retirement officials, North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi said town records indicate Labbadia did not begin getting paid as an on-call firefighter until July 1982. The letter said there is no way Labbadia could have worked as an on-call firefighter in 1980 or 1981 because he would have been too young.

“The Town of North Providence rules and regulations both in print and by practice did not allow anyone to serve as a member of the Call System prior to the age of 16,” Lombardi wrote in the letter. “Mr. Labbadia turned 16 on January 22, 1982.”

In response, attorneys for Labbadia provided the state with three letters from individuals who claimed they could account for Labbadia working as a firefighter in 1980 and 1981. One stated that Labbadia was often seen at the fire station with his father, who was a fire chief at the time.

But state officials dismissed the letters, writing that “statements to the effect that Mr. Labbadia may have been in the station with family prior to age 16 are irrelevant to qualification for eligible service time.”

Karpinski – who has been executive director of the retirement system for 14 years – called the decision by the state to stop paying Labbadia’s pension “rare” and said he could not recall a similar case.

“It’s rare that someone retires, then some block of time later someone says, I think what you have is incorrect,” Karpinski told Target 12.

Now that his pension has been suspended, Labbadia can appeal the decision in order to have the findings tested before a hearing officer in an administrative proceeding. Those results would then be brought before the state retirement system’s full board to either uphold the administrative action or give Labbadia his pension back.

Labbadia can also choose to accept the findings. A call to his attorney, John DeSimone, was not returned.

Labbadia can still apply for pension

To complicate matters even further, it’s still possible Labbadia could get a pension even if his time in North Providence turns out to be insufficient.

Because the state now says Labbadia was not in fact a retiree when he was hired to run the Coventry Fire District (CFD), he must now pay a lump sum for the contributions he should have been paying into the retirement system while working there. The state says he owes $44,630.46, including interest.

And as his employer, the fire district has also been ordered to pay the money it would have put into the retirement plan for Labbadia had it known he wasn’t eligible to be retired: $80,497.08.

“If the CFD fails to remit the employer’s contributions, the unpaid balance will be added to the CFD’s unfunded liability,” Karpinski wrote in a letter to acting Fire Chief Robert Warren. “As a result, this could cause an increase in the Town’s future contribution rates in order to satisfy the funding requirement.”

Retirement officials say that if Labbadia is unsuccessful in getting his North Providence pension back, he will have the option to reapply for a pension using his years in Coventry to cover the time requirements.

Separately, the state police have launched an investigation into how Labbadia obtained his pension and are examining whether anything criminal took place.

In his letter to Labbadia, Karpinski noted that pension benefits can be formally revoked if a recipient is charged and convicted.

“Please be advised that pursuant to the Rhode Island Public Employee Pension Revocation and Reduction Act, should Mr. Labbadia be convicted of or plead guilty or nolo contendre to any crime related to his public employment, the retirement board shall at that time consider revocation of his pension,” he wrote in the letter.

Labbadia was terminated by the five-member board of the Coventry Fire District in February following the Target 12 report, which aired in October.

Among the findings from the undercover investigation, Labbadia was seen on video leaving work in a taxpayer-funded department vehicle to go play golf in another town for hours on end; drinking during the day, then driving the fire department vehicle back to work; and even taking the department vehicle to a party on Federal Hill, where he drank and appeared to smoke – and share – marijuana before once again getting behind the wheel of the station truck.

It was later revealed that Labbadia had been driving the department SUV with a suspended license for more than a year.

In a wide-ranging interview with Target 12 before the report aired, Labbadia denied any wrongdoing.

Labbadia’s town-funded retiree health benefits from North Providence were already suspended last December based on the findings of the investigation into his pension. Mayor Lombardi has demanded that Labbadia repay $180,000 in health costs and annual cost-of-living adjustment payments.

On Monday, Lombardi disclosed that he attempted to work out a payment plan with Labbadia but said he never heard back from him or his lawyer. The mayor said he plans to meet with an attorney hired by the town on Wednesday to discuss legal avenues to recoup that money.

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

Ted Nesi contributed to this report.

This report was changed from the original to reflect the correct amount the state says Labbadia owes in improper pension payments.

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