"I'm very much a by-the-rules guy," Leff said, but he added that retirement officials didn't play by the rules.
He said they "tricked" him by telling him that the hearing last Dec. 9 wasn't a formal hearing. He produced a transcript of the proceeding in which a comptroller's office attorney said it was "not a hearing," but instead was "a fact-finding conference" and "not an adversarial proceeding." Despite that, Leff noted that the board's Feb. 15 decision cited evidence and testimony from "a hearing … on Friday, December 9, 2011."
Leff said if he'd been told it was a formal hearing on which his future depended, he would have made sure to be represented by an attorney. He said he would have submitted to an exam by a state-appointed doctor but was never asked to do so.
Houlding said the state's procedures have been illegal and rife with due-process violations
"In our view it's fundamentally unfair to say [the medical board] made a decision which now they say is incorrect, and that he is to be charged with that error," Houlding said. "There is no basis in the law for a medical examining board to retroactively revoke a disability pension."
He said a board can typically decide that a pension recipient is no longer disabled and can reduce his pension accordingly in the future. But he added that if a retiree always provided accurate information and answered questions truthfully — as he said Leff did in the original application and in a 2008 review — he should not be subject to such a devastating, retroactive penalty just because a board changes its mind.
Beyond the individual circumstances, the case sheds light — yet again — on the unusually generous fringe benefits enjoyed by state employees in comparison to those in the private sector: Leff's spinal condition is not work-related, but that doesn't matter in the world of work for Connecticut government employees. He still received a "non-service connected disability retirement."
It's fairly common for correction officers and police to receive work-related disability pensions after suffering on-the-job injuries. But, even without a work-related health condition, a state worker with 10 years on the job can still receive a disability pension if he or she supplies medical proof.
This can help a person in at least two ways: You can retire before you reach the age of eligibility, and your pension is often higher than it would have been if you had no disability. (Disability amounts can be reduced in later years after Social Security kicks in.)
And so Leff was not only able to retire a little more than four years before the normal early-retirement age of 55, but his pension amount was about $20,000 more a year than it would have been.
This, by the way, is another one of those provisions that was negotiated in past years by the state administration with state employee unions, and then approved by the legislature. Once the unions negotiate such a benefit, it generally is given to non-union managers — such as Leff, in this case.
The rationale for fringe benefits has always been that when you come to work for the state, you are making a trade-off: lower wages in exchange for better benefits, including a secure retirement.
But many observers say the lower-pay part isn't always true anymore, and that as state wages have risen and private-sector pay has stagnated, many state workers make more even in straight salary than their counterparts at private businesses. Most often cited are the proliferating number of $100,000-plus administrators at state agencies.
The Leff case has several twists — including the fact that it started with a case of mistaken identity.
In 2010, someone contacted the comptroller's office, which administers state employee pensions, to report that a David Leff was receiving a disability pension and yet was actively practicing law.
It turned out to be the wrong David Leff – attorney David A. Leff of New Haven (wrong middle initial, wrong town, wrong everything).
Houlding recounted the episode in a May 29 letter to retirement officials: "Sometime in 2010, the Retirement Services Decision was erroneously informed that [Leff] was practicing law in New Haven." He noted that his client, Leff, "is an attorney, but does not and has not practiced law. …This initial false information apparently led the Division to investigate [Leff, his client's] activities."
Information gathered by the retirement division, and submitted to the board, included "all the books, articles and editorials published by Mr. Leff since 2006," the decision said. "Mr. Leff has published three books since 2006 and a fourth book" was due out in June 2012.
A 2009 book, "Deep Travel," chronicled Leff's canoeing in summer 2004 on rivers traveled by the transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau in the 1800s, the board said, "although his testimony to the Board made it clear that his canoeing activities declined after 2004 and he does not do any canoeing at present."
The board continued, ""[T]he volume of writing in the years since his retirement has been quite high. … Mr. Leff testified that he spends 20-25 hours a week writing his books and articles."
Leff said Thursday that he types with the index finger of one hand while hitting the space bar on the keyboard with his other thumb.
The board, in its decision, also noted that Leff attends "monthly and quarterly meetings" of volunteer boards or commissions, and travels "for the purpose of giving talks and lectures."
Leff said in all his activities, deadlines and the obligation to show up — even for a fire with the volunteer department — take a back seat to pain. He said his doctor told him that if he did not get out of the high-stress job at the environmental agency — or the obligations of any full-time job at such a level — he would not enjoy "any quality of life" as the years went on.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at email@example.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.