The city of Oakland, Calif., is investigating the $52,000-a-year pension of a retired police officer who later joined the FBI and who fatally shot a friend of suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev in May 2013.
Aaron McFarlane, identified last week as the agent who shot Ibragim Todashev during an interrogation in Orlando, has collected the pension since he retired from the Oakland Police Department in 2004 at age 31, say California officials. He apparently received the pension for medical reasons, court records say, though he passed the FBI’s stringent physical requirements when he joined the bureau four years later.
McFarlane stands to receive the money, with cost-of-living increases, for the rest of his life, say officials of California’s pension system for public employees. Court records say McFarlane retired after suffering leg injuries on the job. Officials said disability pensions for on-the-job injuries are tax free.
“We’re investigating it,” Karen Boyd, communications director for Oakland’s interim City Administrator Fred Blackwell, said of McFarlane’s pension. She declined to elaborate, citing confidentiality rules, but said the city could refer the matter to the district attorney or take other action.
The investigation follows a Globe report last week detailing McFarlane’s troubled history with the Oakland Police Department. During his four-year tenure, he exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in a police corruption trial after a prosecutor suggested he falsified a police report and then testified under immunity. He also was the subject of two police brutality lawsuits and four internal affairs investigations, records show.
In court records, McFarlane denied the brutality accusations and falsifying the police report.
Disclosure of McFarlane’s pension has struck a nerve in Oakland, a Northern California city of 400,000 beset by high crime and a tight budget. Over the last decade, Oakland has slashed 720 city jobs, including dozens of police officers; closed firehouses for days at a time; and limited basic services such as code enforcement and fixing streets, city records show. The city’s unfunded pension liability is nearly $1.5 billion.
This week, the president of the Oakland City Council, Patricia Kernighan, expressed “real frustration that Oakland is still paying a disability pension to somebody that is still working in law enforcement.”
She said she also asked her staff to look into McFarlane’s pension. “We want to make sure that people who are truly disabled on the job get fair compensation,” Kernighan said. “But we certainly don’t want to be paying able-bodied people for a disability that they don’t have with public funds.”
The FBI declined to answer questions about McFarlane’s pension. Bureau officials say McFarlane is a hero whose quick thinking, despite a head injury, may have saved the life of a Massachusetts state trooper during their encounter with Todashev a year ago Thursday.
McFarlane and two state troopers were interrogating Todashev in his Orlando apartment last May when Todashev allegedly confessed to helping Tsarnaev kill three men in Waltham in 2011.
After one of the troopers left the room, Todashev allegedly attacked the agent and the remaining trooper, wielding a metal pole, said the Florida prosecutor who investigated the shooting. The FBI agent then shot Todashev seven times. Todashev was a 27-year-old mixed martial arts fighter with a criminal record, including an arrest that month stemming from a fight over a parking space in Orlando.
In March, Florida prosecutor Jeffrey L. Ashton and the Justice Department ruled in separate reports that the use of deadly force against Todashev was justified, saying the agent acted in self-defense.
“None of your reporting to date has anything to do with what happened in that room,” Kieran L. Ramsey, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Boston, said in a brief statement to the Globe, which identified the agent last week over the bureau’s objections. “Law enforcement officers were violently attacked and responded with justifiable deadly force.”
Ramsey refused to answer questions about why the bureau hired McFarlane despite his troubled record in Oakland and his past injuries. According to the bureau’s website, aspiring FBI agents must pass a fitness test and be in “excellent” condition, “with no disabilities which would interfere in firearm use, raids, or defensive tactics.”
Agents often face physically demanding conditions, the website said. “In these instances, physical fitness is often the factor that spells the difference between success and failure, even life and death,” the FBI says on its website.
After McFarlane retired from the Oakland police force in spring 2004, he became a licensed real estate appraiser, according to records at the California Bureau of Real Estate Appraisers. His license expired in September 2008, and he did not renew it. According to court filings, he became a Boston FBI agent in November 2008.
Todashev’s family and supporters have disputed the government’s account of the shooting. They say the FBI’s failure to disclose McFarlane’s past troubles, including questions about his credibility, raise doubts about official reports by the Florida prosecutor and the Justice Department that ruled the shooting justified. McFarlane and Trooper Curtis Cinelli of the Massachusetts State Police are the only witnesses to the shooting.
“He did not attack anyone,” Todashev’s mother-in-law, Elena Teyer of Georgia, a retired US Army pharmacy specialist, said in a telephone interview. “He was not suicidal. He was not an idiot. He was intelligent. He was trained from a little child how to calm himself down and control his emotions. He was a professional fighter.”
Teyer, the mother of Todashev’s estranged wife, was in the Army from 2007 until March and has won numerous medals, including for the Global War on Terrorism, according to an Army spokesman. Teyer planned a memorial vigil for Todashev this week in Orlando.
A spokesman for Ashton said this week that the FBI did not tell Ashton or his investigator about McFarlane’s past in Oakland.
“Mr. Ashton did not know any of the background of the officers,” spokesman Richard I. Wallsh said. “What we presented in our report was a full and exhaustive discussion of the information that we had in our possession.”
Barry Cohen, a Florida based lawyer working with Todashev’s family, said that McFarlane’s background should have been disclosed in the official reports clearing him in the Todashev shooting.
“The omission of this material from the report is so deceitful,” said Cohen. “Don't you think his family and the public has the right to know, if they’re relying on the testimony of a man like this FBI agent, to know who he is?”
The shooting reports from Florida and the Justice Department did not name the FBI agent or the Massachusetts troopers interrogating Todashev that night. The Globe obtained their names in March by removing improperly created redactions from an electronic copy of Ashton’s report and then verifying their identities through interviews and multiple government records, including voting, birth, and pension documents.
Wallsh said Florida typically discloses the names of officers involved in shootings, but withheld them in this case at the request of the FBI, which would cooperate with the investigation only under that condition. The FBI did not want the names released, citing concerns for their safety.
Cohen said federal prosecutors also should have disclosed McFarlane’s background in other criminal cases, because his credibility has been questioned in the past.
Shortly before the Marathon bombings last year, McFarlane signed an affidavit filed in US District Court in Boston in a bank robbery case he helped investigate.
Oscar Cruz, the federal public defender in that case, said he did not know of McFarlane’s history in Oakland. Cruz said he was not immediately sure it was relevant to his client, who pleaded guilty. But, Cruz said, “I think I’d like to know.”
A spokeswoman for US Attorney Carmen Ortiz said requirements that the government disclose information about an investigator to the defense depends on a variety of factors, including “whether the case goes to trial or results in a guilty plea.”
“Had the agent been called to testify in this case, the government would have produced all required information,” said Ortiz’s spokeswoman, Christina DiIorio-Sterling.