Qualified for the FBI and Oakland Disability

How is it possible that the FBI agent who shot and killed an associate of a suspected Boston Marathon bomber has been pocketing more than $50,000 annually in disability benefits since he retired as an Oakland, California, police officer in 2004 at age 31?

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On May 22, 2013, Ibragim Todashev of Orlando, Florida, allegedly had just confessed to helping the late Tamerlan Tsarnaev kill three men two years earlier, when he threw a coffee table at an FBI agent and charged a Massachusetts state trooper with a pole. The agent fired seven shots. Todashev died. Two investigations found that the agent, named Aaron McFarlane, according to The Boston Globe, had acted in self-defense.

During a police corruption trial of the infamous Oakland Riders, who were acquitted, McFarlane pleaded the Fifth Amendment when questioned about filing a false police report. He repeatedly injured a leg and an ankle while on the force and retired on medical disability.

Why is he on disability? I don’t know. CalPERS, the state-administered retirement fund, can reveal only that he is collecting an annual pension of $52,000 essentially for life. If McFarlane has a physical disability, it was not so debilitating as to prevent him from passing a background check and training at the FBI’s academy in Quantico, Virginia.

Privacy laws prohibit government agencies from revealing the nature of McFarlane’s disability. So readers will have to imagine for themselves how a former cop can be so disabled as to receive some $500,000 over the past decade yet still qualify for working as an FBI agent.

Boston FBI agent Kieran Ramsey would not confirm that McFarlane was the agent involved in the shooting. Privacy considerations prevented him from discussing McFarlane’s disability status. He did tell me that the FBI complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act and hires people with disabilities. Some 160 special agents are considered disabled, some of them war veterans who receive disability benefits. One, he mentioned, is a war amputee. Disabled applicants nonetheless “have to meet the same rigorous standards anyone else applying for the FBI would have to meet.”

I asked whether the FBI, to gauge an applicant’s ethics, looks into whether an applicant is collecting disability payments from police departments. Ramsey responded, “(It’s) not for you or I to question his ethics.”

If there is a problem with an FBI agent’s collecting disability, Ramsey suggested, perhaps the problem is with CalPERS.

Bingo. State law prohibits disability recipients from taking similar employment with a CalPERS employer, but there’s no ban on receiving disability while working for a corporation, a federal agency or an out-of-state police force. That’s one attractive loophole.

Former employees have a responsibility to notify their employers when they no longer are disabled, but there are no teeth to that requirement. The employer — in this case, Oakland — then would be in a position to reoffer a job to the disability recipient or stop payments.

For Oakland, this story could not come at a worse time. City Hall has been drafting a measure to increase and extend a parcel tax that is supposed to maintain a minimum staffing level of 802 police officers. As of Tuesday, there were 649 officers in the Oakland PD.

Oakland Director of Human Resources Anil Comelo told me that over the past 1 1/2 years, 59 percent of Oakland Police Department retirees have received disability retirements.

If I were one of Oakland’s 649 police officers, I would be enraged to learn that while I am working in an understaffed force in a dangerous, financially strapped city, it nonetheless pays former cops to work someplace else. Karen Boyd, spokeswoman for Oakland’s interim city administrator, Fred Blackwell, told me City Hall is going to look at which non-CalPERS law enforcement agencies have asked the OPD for referrals and then re-examine those claims.

Dan Pellissier of California Pension Reform recalled the phrase “chief’s disease,” dubbed after The Sacramento Bee found in 2004 that nearly 70 percent of California Highway Patrol officers retired on disability. To him, such double-dipping is “violating the public trust.” Disability income, after all, is supposed to compensate recipients for income lost because they cannot do their job. It’s supposed to be a safety net, not the lottery.

Email Debra J. Saunders at: dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.: 

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