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Questions surround ex-firefighter on disability

Long Beach City Councilman John McLaughlin is a

Long Beach City Councilman John McLaughlin is a former New York City firefighter. (July 14, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

A Long Beach City councilman receives an $86,000 disability pension from the New York Fire Department for asthma even as he runs in marathons and competes in triathlons - sparking questions from some political opponents and others about how the pension system determines disability and whether he deserves the money.

John McLaughlin, a registered Democrat who was elected last year as a Republican, released Fire Department documents to support his position that he had little choice but to retire in 2001, when Fire Department doctors diagnosed him with bronchial asthma and found he couldn't return to full duty.

Questioning the system

A former elite runner who now competes in local distance events, McLaughlin, 55, said he can participate in competitive sports with asthma because his condition is not generally induced by exercise but by chemical irritants. And doctors encouraged him to stay active for his health as long as he kept the asthma in check with medicines, which he takes daily, he said, showing a list of prescribed drugs.

However, some questioned a system that could approve three-quarters disability pensions for someone who can compete in events as grueling as the Eagleman Ironman 70.3 - a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run. State law mandates that certain diseases suffered by firefighters be presumed work-related.

"There's something very wrong with our pension system where we're forcing people who can do something like that to retire, and to retire at three-quarters pay," said Roy Lester, a Long Beach school board member and a triathlete.

Long Beach Democratic committee leader Michael Zapson said McLaughlin ought to explain how he can engage in competitive sports while receiving a public pension for a lung-related disability.

"You have to wonder with that extent of a disability how he's running and entering as many races as he is," Zapson said.

'Worst thing' to happen

In an interview, McLaughlin said that in May 2001 he went to the department's medical office suffering from a wheezing condition. He thought he had bronchitis. The visit triggered a lung test that McLaughlin failed, and led to a board of doctors finding that he was "unfit for fire duty," according to a June 2001 FDNY letter that McLaughlin provided.

At that point, McLaughlin had the option to retire on disability or to seek another job in the agency, either as a nonuniformed employee or a uniformed member with limited service. (Had he not been diagnosed, he still would have been eligible to retire at half salary because he had served for 20 years.)

McLaughlin said that although he got a temporary light duty assignment pending the resolution of his case, a permanent limited-service option was not feasible because such job openings were scarce. Plus, he'd joined the department in September 1981 to be a firefighter, not for a desk job. A Freedom of Information Law request seeking information on limited-service jobs has not yet been answered.

"I thought it was one of the worst things that ever happened to me," said McLaughlin, who eventually supported the disability finding.

He retired in November 2001, but not before spending several months working with so many other firefighters at Ground Zero. He said that in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, there was no clear departmental policy barring him from access to the site. "It was just one of those times where everybody was down there," said McLaughlin, who spent some time working on the pile. "I never even thought about it. I did what I felt I was supposed to do," noting that he broke no rules or ignored no orders in working there.

The department declined to provide details about McLaughlin's employment history.

McLaughlin, who in an initial interview said he was not seeking further compensation due to his disability, later acknowledged he is a plaintiff in a WTC lawsuit. He is among the more than 10,000 Ground Zero workers suing the city and contractors, claiming that toxic materials at the site sickened them.

Party to 9/11 lawsuit

McLaughlin said that after medical tests revealed in 2006 that he had a nodule in his lung, he added his name to the 9/11 victims' lawsuit because he wanted to protect his family if he became seriously ill. Now that the nodule has dissipated, he said, he will not seek any payout from the $712-million settlement negotiated last month.

McLaughlin and other plaintiffs have until Sept. 30 to vote whether to opt out of the settlement. McLaughlin said he had no plans to cast a vote. Asked if he ultimately would withdraw his lawsuit, McLaughlin said: "I would say I would withdraw it after I talk to the lawyer."

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