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Rahm Emanuel: ‘Cheap trick’ to cite his ties to fire chief on disability

Rahm Emanuel Chicago firefighter Patrick Kehoe pose during Emanuel's time Congress.

Rahm Emanuel and Chicago firefighter Patrick Kehoe pose during Emanuel's time in Congress.

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Updated: August 19, 2012 6:21AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday he isn’t embarrassed by the revelation that a former Chicago firefighter who starred in an Emanuel campaign commercial is collecting $91,113 a year in tax-free disability pay.

Emanuel said he was serving as White House chief of staff when Chicago Fire Department District Chief Patrick J. Kehoe went on disability leave.

The mayor dismissed as a “cheap trick” a Chicago Sun-Times story published Tuesday that noted that Kehoe was identified in Emanuel’s mayoral campaign commercials as a “retired Chicago firefighter.”

At the time the commercial began airing, Kehoe had been on disability leave for about four months after slipping on a driveway during a hazardous-materials call on July 17, 2009.

“I met Pat Kehoe in a fire station in 2001,” Emanuel said Tuesday. “In July of 2009, when he went in front of the pension board, I was the chief of staff to the president of the United States . . . I don’t know the case. I wasn’t here. I was in Washington, working for President Obama.

“We have a systemic issue on police and fire disability that needs to be addressed [and doesn’t] need to be played cheap tricks on. What happened to the disability is a serious issue, needs to be dealt [with] seriously and not made [a] frivolous issue….We have a systemic issue, not a one-off case.”

Kehoe — who served on the public-safety committee of Emanuel’s mayoral transition team — is collecting the seventh-highest paycheck of the 390 Chicago firefighters and paramedics on disability leave.

At 55, he is likely to collect $870,000 in disability pay by the time he reaches mandatory retirement at age 63. After that, his annual pension is expected to exceed $100,000.

“In 2001, I met him and, let me tell you . . . what he did,” Emanuel said. “He told me about the . . . FAFSA student-aid form. He had to fill out 106 questions, eight pages long. I took that idea, and I turned it into the simple, easy form so middle-class families do not have to struggle when they’re trying to find college aid for their kids.”

On Monday, responding to the first two installments in the Sun-Times’ “Disability Pays” series, Emanuel blamed “a few bad actors” in the Chicago Police Department for “taking down” their $18 million-a-year disability system, which he said is meant to serve as an insurance policy for officers who perform “difficult, life-threatening jobs.”

The Sun-Times reported that the police disability system, bankrolled by a taxpayer-subsidized police pension plan, includes 347 officers, covering a range of conditions, from the most severely disabled to others who are able to work, have gone on to new careers while on disability and, in some cases, moved away while continuing to collect a city check and other benefits. The series highlighted cases including two officers who never served a single day on the street. They went on disability after sustaining injuries during training at the police academy.

The fire department is less than half the size of the police department but has more people on disability leave — 390 firefighters and paramedics, the Sun-Times reported in Tuesday’s editions. Together, they collect more than $27 million a year. Only eight disabled firefighters have returned to work since 2003.

Emanuel said Monday he has asked two top aides — Lois Scott, his chief financial officer, and City Comptroller Amer Ahmed — to recommend reforms to the pension system.

The mayor is expected to use the abuses uncovered by the Sun-Times to demand changes during contract negotiations.

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