The troubling case of Robert Quintana, a Buffalo police officer, former Buffalo Common Council member and a national spokesman for the United Way, shows the city is serious about cracking down on possible abuse of injured-on-duty payments to police officers and firefighters.
Quintana faces federal charges after an undercover operation conducted by the FBI led to his arrest by the FBI and the Internal Affairs Division of the Police Department.
Undercover FBI agents observed Quintana cleaning tables, lifting boxes, chipping ice and otherwise managing a restaurant, they say, for pay.
This wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the fact that he was on injured-on-duty status at public expense, earning more than $60,000 a year since 2005 when he said he wasn't fit even for light duty.
The public paid Quintana $561,000 in salary and fringe benefits over the years, while he reportedly was trying to recover from back and neck injuries he said were job related. If that doesn't get the public riled, then not much else will.
Arraigned on charges of mail fraud and health care fraud, things look grim for a man who was once a rising political star before that light dimmed due to his own public and personal tribulations. This latest chapter should serve as a warning to others.
Quintana pleaded not guilty and was released on his own recognizance in what has become a federal case with the possibility of 20 years in prison if convicted. Meanwhile, he has been suspended without pay.
His lawyer, Barry N. Covert, has tried to explain away the situation. Quintana worked at Niagara Cafe, but did so only for an hour or so each day and only when his pain would permit. Oh, and he stayed at home until the end of his work day -- presumably when he might have been at police headquarters engaged in light-duty work -- and then went to the restaurant, a well-known West Side restaurant owned by his wife's parents. Covert also says Quintana was never paid for the work.
Maybe we're missing something, but even an hour a day being observed lifting boxes and chipping ice when claiming to be too weakened to perform light desk duty is an hour too long.
Legitimate injured-on-duty police and fire officials are one thing. Many of these folks have sustained critical or chronic injuries on duty that disable them for life. They ought to be compensated. But paying for those who are just gaming the system represents an unfair hit to taxpayer wallets.
The News dug into the pervasive problem of injured-on-duty officers in 2009 and found that about a hundred injured police officers, 13 percent of the force, were costing taxpayers about $10 million a year in pay and benefits. And the pay they receive while injured on duty is exempt from income taxes, leaving little incentive for those who are not truly disabled to give up what amounts to a pretty good life.
Mayor Byron W. Brown last year asked police and fire commissioners to take over management of the cases in their departments, and specifically ordered Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda to start examining the injured-on-duty cases and develop a strategy to control them.
However the Quintana case turns out, others will know that the city is serious about going after those who would abuse the system, and that has to be a relief to taxpayers.