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Cop who hunts big game aims — and misses — in bid to restore disability pay

Chicago Police officer Charles Siedlecki long term sick leave meets Police Pensiboard hearing with his lawyer. | Al Podgorski~Chicao Sun-Times

Chicago Police officer Charles Siedlecki, on long term sick leave meets at the Police Pension board hearing with his lawyer. | Al Podgorski~Chicao Sun-Times

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Updated: June 2, 2013 6:37AM

While on safari in Africa, disabled Chicago police officer Charles T. Siedlecki bagged his share of big-game trophies and was famously pictured with one of them on the cover of this newspaper last year.

But on Tuesday, it was Siedlecki who found himself in the crosshairs of city officials at a meeting of the Chicago Police pension fund.

City Treasurer Stephanie Neely, even held up a copy of that Sun-Times cover story by Tim Novak and Chris Fusco as she grilled Siedlecki for details of his various hunting trips to Tanzania, Zambia, South Africa, Alaska, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

Lois Scott, the city’s chief financial officer, and Amer Ahmad, city comptroller, followed up with barbed questions of their own, trying to square Siedlecki’s disabling shoulder injury with his hunting prowess.

“I never said I couldn’t fire a weapon,” answered Siedlecki, who emphasized there’s a big difference between being physically able to perform the duties of a police officer and going on a luxury hunting trip with guides and gun bearers to assist.

When Siedlecki mentioned his “yacht hunt” in Alaska, Ahmad pointedly asked: “Is that when you did the 1,600 yard stalk of a brown bear?”

Siedlecki allowed that it was, but noted: “There’s nothing wrong with my legs either.”

When they were finished, the pension board blocked Siedlecki’s request to restore four months of disability pay — or about $17,000.

That was the amount Siedlecki would have been paid between the time the pension board cut off his disability benefits last August — in response to the Sun-Times stories — and when he chose to retire effective January 1, 2013.

“They did this to satisfy you guys,” an angry but polite Siedlecki told me after a 4-to-4 vote of the pension fund’s trustees, with the elected police representatives supporting him and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s four appointees voting in opposition. In this case, the tie went to the taxpayers.

You might have thought that a guy who collected nearly $1 million in police disability benefits while going on to enjoy a successful career as a lawyer and an expensive hobby as a big game hunter would have just let the $17,000 go — especially now that he’s drawing his police pension.

But Siedlecki said it isn’t about money.

“I want to clear my name,” said Siedlecki, 57, who maintains he was, if anything, a victim of a system that forced him out of the police department and onto disability pay when he still was capable of working — just not necessarily as a police officer.

Siedlecki joined the police department in 1982 and injured his left shoulder in 1992 when he slipped and fell while chasing a group of teenagers in Beverly. After he underwent surgery, a police department doctor determined he was “unable to perform unrestricted police duties.”

Siedlecki said the city forced him off the job, telling him the light-duty post to which he had been assigned after his injury was not the work he had been hired to perform. He said he went on disability to support his family.

“The officer has no say in this. There’s no negotiation. You’re blaming the wrong guys,” Siedlecki said.

Siedlecki said the same doctors who annually told the pension fund he was still disabled were well aware of his hunting trips.

“I didn’t try to deceive anybody. I was forthcoming with everyone. I was truthful, and I did everything I was supposed to do,” he argued.

I agree with Siedlecki that there’s a systemic problem here, but unfortunately he’s a perfect example of why the police disability pay system makes no sense.

With his disability to support him, Siedlecki decided to go to law school. He graduated in 1997 and has built his own practice, mostly doing employment law in the federal courts.

He’s had enough success as a lawyer, he said, to support the very expensive hobby of big game hunting, all the while continuing to draw disability pay that had topped $51,000 a year before the pension fund finally cut him off.

“I don’t apologize for that. I earned that,” Siedlecki told the pension board.

I don’t begrudge Siedlecki his success as a lawyer or as a hunter. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense for the city to continue paying someone like him under those circumstances.

The challenge is to properly compensate police officers for truly disabling injuries suffered on the job — and give taxpayers a fair shake when those injuries don’t interfere with the officer’s ability to earn a living.

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