Pension board to further review Lexington fire chief's request for disability pay

Board requests diagnosis clarification

jkegley@herald-leader.combfortune@herald-leader.comJuly 14, 2011 

The Lexington Police and Fire pension board decided Wednesday to further review the disability pension of embattled Lexington fire chief Robert Hendricks.

The board delayed the final decision on Hendricks' pension because of "discrepancies" between two medical diagnoses presented to the board. Hendricks, who has been on full paid leave since the mayor asked for his resignation in February, applied for a permanent and total disability pension in May.

The board voted in May to consider Hendricks' application. An evaluation by two medical doctors is required before the board can approve or deny someone's disability pension.

On his application, Hendricks has to reveal the nature of his medical problem and state whether it was related to his occupation. This medical information is considered private, and it has not been made public.

Efforts to dismiss Hendricks began Feb. 28, when Mayor Jim Gray said a change was needed in the fire department because of a "lack of leadership, failure to manage the division's budget, especially overtime, and division morale." Gray gave Hendricks until noon the next day to submit his resignation. When the resignation was not forthcoming, Gray asked the city's law department to compile charges against Hendricks in an effort to seek his dismissal. The mayor then appointed Maj. Keith Jackson as interim chief.

It's unclear how the process of compiling charges is proceeding. Hendricks has not faced any disciplinary actions during either of his tenures with the Lexington fire department, according to an open records request.

Hendricks, who has not commented publicly since the mayor asked him to resign, attended Wednesday's hearing. He and his attorney, Mark Wohlander, declined to comment.

Hendricks, dressed in khaki slacks and a blue sport coat, stood in the hallway of the government center chatting with Wohlander as the pension board discussed in closed session his claim for nearly two hours.

When the meeting re-opened, board members voted 7-5 to seek clarification on the doctors' reports. Board members who voted not to seek clarification were Gray, police Chief Ronnie Bastin and public safety commissioner Clay Mason.

Pension board member Tommy Puckett said afterward that answers provided by one of the doctors were incomplete and did not address some of the pertinent questions the board needed answered. "We were not happy with one particular report," Puckett said. "The doctor did not answer the questions we want answered."

Doctors must provide information, such as when an injury occurred and whether the person is "totally and permanently disabled," Puckett said.

A specific set of questions will be sent back to the doctor, asking, among other things, how the doctor came to his conclusion, Puckett said. If the questions are not answered to the board's satisfaction, Hendricks will be examined by a third doctor, of the board's choosing. "The doctors work for us. We hire them and pay them quite a lot of money," Puckett said.

Gray indicated Wednesday that he would prefer to seek the opinion of a third doctor right away rather than seek clarification.

"Mayor Gray feels this process should move more efficiently. Seeking the third opinion would do that," said his spokeswoman, Susan Straub.

Puckett said it was not unusual to seek clarification during disability claims. Before seeking clarification on Hendricks' report, the pension board sought clarification on the disability claim of firefighter Thomas Blythe because of unclear wording on one of his reports.

Of Hendricks, Puckett said, "We are treating him like we would anybody else."

If the board approves a disability pension for Hendricks, it would be his second pension.

In 2002, then-Mayor Teresa Isaac introduced Hendricks to the pension board, saying she wanted to hire him as the city's fire chief. Hendricks had spent two decades as a Lexington firefighter, retiring in 1997 as a district major. He then became Georgetown's fire chief.

Hendricks was drawing a retirement pension from Lexington when Isaac asked that he be hired as chief.

Board members said Isaac was told at that 2002 meeting that if Hendricks got hurt, he could get a second pension. Hendricks and Isaac assured the pension board he would not do that, said Puckett, who is retired from the police department. "He was allowed to come back into the pension system. I was opposed to that. I was afraid he might make a claim sometime in the future," Puckett said.

As chief, Hendricks was the highest-paid city employee based on salary alone, earning $148,379.

A list of salaries of Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government employees obtained by the Herald-Leader last month showed Hendricks as being paid $140,660 annually.

If he is found to be injured, he could receive 60 percent to 75 percent of his salary as a fire chief — tax-free — for the rest of his life, Puckett said, depending on the severity of his injury, plus his retirement pension.

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