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Disability Pay Under Fire : Ex-L.A. Officer Running for Sheriff in Oregon

Times Staff Writer

A former Los Angeles policeman who is drawing a disability pension while running for a county sheriff’s job in Oregon was ordered Thursday to appear before a hearing officer to explain why he should continue to draw his $1,700 a month in benefits.

Investigators for the Los Angeles Board of Pension Commissioners want to hear William E. Arnado’s justification for drawing the pension, which he was awarded nine years ago, while serving as a sheriff’s deputy in Josephine County, Ore.

Arnado, 44, of Grants Pass is unopposed on the November ballot for the sheriff’s job after he upset the incumbent in the May primary. Between 1980 and 1984, Arnado had worked as a full-time Josephine County sheriff’s deputy, also while drawing his disability pension. The board’s decision to refer the Arnado matter to a hearing examiner came after a brief executive session on the case, originally set for review three years ago but delayed amid an investigation, legal maneuvering and several medical examinations of Arnado.

Then, summoning Arnado into a City Hall hearing room, the commission informed him that his case would not be decided Thursday by the commission.

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After Commissioner Sam Diannitto declared that Arnado’s case was “extremely complex . . . with a lot of loose ends,” the panel ordered a formal hearing within 60 days.

An angry Arnado told commissioners that he had wanted a decision Thursday on whether he could keep his pension. To delay, he charged, was an “injustice. . . . How long am I going to be on the edge? . . . Am I a crook? . . . I’m tired of fighting the system.”

“You’ll have your day in court,” Commissioner Diannitto responded.

Afterward, the panel’s president, Dellene Arthur, told a reporter that referring the case to a hearing examiner was the “responsible” thing to do because it involved “very many legal issues that this board does not feel qualified to deal with.”

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A former Marine, Arnado joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1966 and received coveted assignments on the department’s SWAT team and as a self-defense instructor at the Police Academy during his 11 years with the department.

In a recent interview at his videotaping business in Grants Pass, a southern Oregon community of about 15,000, Arnado complained bitterly of several years of harassment by the pension board.

“It’s like having a noose around your neck and you’re waiting to be pushed off a cliff,” he said, while scooping up an armful of file folders containing testimony and correspondence. “I may look healthy on the outside. . . . I feel good. . . . But I have my days. . . . I have pain. . . . I’ve learned over the years to live with the pain.”

Referring to the Josephine County sheriff’s post as largely sedentary, Arnado said that, given his bad back, “this is the only thing I could be--the sheriff. . . . Right now, I couldn’t pass (a physical test) to be a full-time deputy.”

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Arnado’s physical problems began a dozen years ago. While lifting weights at the Police Academy in March, 1974, he hurt his back and suffered muscle spasms. The following year, he had surgery to remove a disk in his spine.

His back problems persisted and, on June 9, 1977, the commissioners unanimously voted a disability pension for Arnado, allowing him to resign on a pension of 65% of his salary, or $1,115 a month.

On Sept. 28, 1978, Arnado’s pension was reduced to 55% of his salary after an examination by a Los Angeles orthopedist who concluded that Arnado had the physical ability to do light work, such as a desk job. Cost-of-living allowances have since boosted the pension to $1,707 a month.

Arnado moved his wife and two children to Oregon shortly after receiving his pension and bought what he says is an eight-acre farm about 13 miles south of Grants Pass.

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Then, for financial reasons, Arnado attempted to rejoin the Los Angeles department in 1978 after the reduction of his pension, according to pension commission hearing transcripts. However, after an examination by two doctors who found that he still had a back problem, the commissioners in March, 1979, denied his application for re-employment.

“There may not have been a job then to accommodate him,” said Gary Mattingly, general manager for the Fire and Police Pension System. “I don’t know.”

After a stint in 1979 as a reserve deputy, a non-paying position, Arnado was hired in July, 1980, as a full-time Josephine County sheriff’s deputy, a post he held until he resigned for medical reasons on May 6, 1984.

Neither the Los Angeles City Charter nor the Police and Fire Pension System’s rules preclude a former officer on a pension from taking another job, according to Eudon Ferrell, a deputy city attorney.

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“The question,” Ferrell said, is whether Arnado “is doing anything inconsistent with the provisions of retirement. There was no indication he was working (in Oregon) in any restricted capacity. He was a full-fledged officer. That was enough to bring him before the board.”

The catalyst for reopening Arnado’s pension case occurred Aug. 5, 1983, when Arnado shot and subdued an armed man who had barricaded himself in a house in the Grants Pass area.

Word of Arnado’s deeds reached Los Angeles, and two police officers were dispatched to investigate if Arnado’s back had healed. Among their interviews, the investigators talked to the owner of a local gym where Arnado played racquetball and to his boss at that time, Josephine County Undersheriff Jim Carlton.

Carlton said Arnado had “distinguished himself” as a martial arts instructor for sheriff’s deputies. “He trained our deputies in defensive tactics,” he said. “I’ve seen him get behind large men and take them to the ground. . . . He never complained of back pains.”

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