By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — James Flaherty has lost his last chance to win back his $64,744-a-year pension in state court, paving the way for the Haverhill Retirement Board to go after Flaherty for money he collected after he was convicted for stealing from the city.
In a May 2 ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court denied Flaherty’s request for further appellate review of the retirement board’s 2009 decision to revoke the former Haverhill Highway Department superintendent’s pension.
A Superior Court judge and state Appeal Court have also previously affirmed the retirement board’s decision to strip Flaherty, 70, of his pension. The pension is worth $940,000, based on Flaherty’s life expectancy, and includes health benefits for him and his wife, according to court papers in the case.
The latest court ruling sends the seemingly-never-ending case back to Haverhill, where the retirement board is expected to begin next week the process of recouping $64,008 that Flaherty collected after his conviction but before his pension was taken away.
A judge has already ruled Flaherty must repay the money, but the board had to wait for Flaherty to exhaust his state court appeals before starting the collection process, said Michael Sacco, the retirement board’s lawyer.
Sacco said he expects the board to discuss the process for collecting the money at its May 14 meeting.
“I anticipate there will be a discussion with respect to the recovery of the funds owed to the retirement system by Mr. Flaherty,” Sacco said.
Flaherty’s legal fight might not be over either. In January, Flaherty’s attorney, Scott Gleason, said he would take his client’s fight for the return of his pension to federal court on constitutional grounds once his state appeals were exhausted.
Flaherty has 60 days from his latest court loss to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.
“We disagree with the Appeals Court that a 47-year career, pension worth $1 million, that was earned with blood, sweat and tears, should be taken away for the theft of $500 worth of dirt,” Gleason said in a January interview about Flaherty’s conviction for stealing paving material from the city. “After we exhaust our options in state court, we’ll go to federal court if we have to. We’re going all the way.”
Gleason could not be reached yesterday for comment on the new court ruling.
In May 2009, Flaherty was convicted by a jury of felony larceny over $250 and pleaded guilty to three counts of filing false tax returns following his trial in Salem Superior Court. He was also indicted but found not guilty of procurement fraud and improper compensation by a municipal employee.
Three months later, the city’s Retirement Board revoked Flaherty’s pension, based on a law that states a person convicted of using his public position to steal from the public forfeits the right to collect the benefit.
Gleason has said many public officials in Massachusetts, including some right here in Haverhill, have committed more serious crimes but were allowed to keep their pensions.