A Fullerton police officer accused in the death of a homeless man will continue to receive his nearly $40,000 annual disability pension from the city of Los Angeles after his father made an emotional appeal to a city pension board.
The board responsible for overseeing fire and police pensions in Los Angeles voted Thursday against launching a review of Jay Cicinelli's disability pension.
Cicinelli, 39, lost his left eye when he was shot while on duty as a rookie Los Angeles Police Department officer in 1996.
When officials told him they did not have a place in the department for a probationary officer with one eye, Cicinelli went to court in an attempt to keep his job, but eventually settled with the city and accepted retirement with a disability pension of 70% of his salary.
Despite his disability, Cicinelli was hired as an officer by the Fullerton Police Department, where he worked his way up from a reserve officer to a corporal earning $88,544 a year.
Cicinelli's case came to the attention of the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pensions staff over the summer when his name surfaced in news reports as one of six officers involved in a violent struggle with Kelly Thomas, 37, a homeless man with schizophrenia who died five days after the July 5 altercation at a bus depot in Fullerton.
Cicinelli faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force in the case, and has been placed on unpaid leave by the Fullerton department.
A second officer, Manuel Ramos, 37, was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Four other officers involved in the case were not charged.
The L.A. pension department's staff has asked its governing board for permission to take the rare step of reviewing Cicinelli's pension case to determine if his award should be reduced because he appeared to be working on patrol duty while collecting a generous disability pension.
Pensioners are not forbidden to work, but officials said the fact that he was working as a patrol officer raised questions about his disability status.
If the board had given the go-ahead for the review, a second vote would have been required to actually reduce Cicinelli's pension.
But board members — four of them elected by the police and firefighters and four appointed by the mayor — voted 5 to 3 to deny the staff permission to launch the review.
Cicinelli's father, John Huelsman, told the board that after his son was shot, LAPD officials at first touted him as a hero and said he would not lose his job over his injury, but then changed their tune and told him he could no longer work as an officer.
"All he wanted to do was remain an LAPD officer — that's all he ever wanted to do," Huelsman told the board.
Huelsman said higher-ups at the LAPD had been aware from the beginning that Cicinelli was working as a Fullerton officer while collecting his disability pension.
"You guys may not have known about it, but [former Chief] Bernard Parks did. Everyone in command knew where Jay was," he said. "Then all of a sudden he gets involved in something over there … and the board is going to open it up and say we're going to take a look at this, we didn't know he was a cop."
Parks confirmed in a telephone interview that he and other officials had known that Cicinelli went to work for Fullerton.
Parks said he opposed bringing Cicinelli back to work as an LAPD officer with his disability because it would have affected hiring standards. But he wrote a letter to the board advocating for a generous disability pension. The staff at the time recommended a 40% pension. The board opted for 70%.
"You can argue about whether it should be 40 or 70%," Parks said. "There's no doubt that he deserves a pension because, had he not been injured so severely, the likelihood is that he would still be on the Police Department."
The board members who supported a review of Cicinelli's pension said they thought the board had a responsibility to other pensioners to make sure funds were being spent appropriately. The majority, who voted against launching the review, pointed out that Cicinelli still has only one eye.
"I just think it's bad taste for this board to go back and second-guess other boards when his disability hasn't changed," said Commissioner Ruben Navarro.
Although Cicinelli's pension was left intact, the case led some board members to call for a more systematic process for reviewing disability pensions, rather than relying on media reports or unsolicited tips from pensioners' co-workers, neighbors and ex-spouses.
Department General Manager Michael Perez said his staff began looking into a more defined process a couple of months ago and will send a report to the board.