Governor Maura Healey is seeking to allow the retired police chief who heads Massachusetts’ police training agency to take home both his $150,000-a-year salary and a municipal pension, a move that a state watchdog called an extraordinary exception to the rules governing public retirees.
Healey’s proposal would exempt Robert Ferullo, the executive director of the state’s Municipal Police Training Committee, from a state law that limits how much government retirees can work in an in-state public job while still collecting their taxpayer-funded pension.
The language has already twice cleared the House in recent years and is backed by police groups, who argue that the current limits effectively forced Ferullo into a volunteer role — his $123,187-a-year pension aside — after he hit the state’s annual 1,200-hour limit for retirees.
Under Healey’s proposal, which she tucked into the state budget plan she filed last month, Ferullo would be able to earn both his full $149,955 salary on top of the pension he collects from Woburn, where he retired as police chief in 2018. Ferullo is also an at-large councilor in Woburn, a role that carries a $12,000 stipend.
The head of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association said its members pitched Healey on the idea in December, months after the language died in lawmakers’ closed-door negotiations over the current state budget. House lawmakers had proposed, and passed, a similar bill in December 2022 and again as part of its annual spending plan last spring.
“There is significant benefit to having an experienced leader who has spent their career in law enforcement serve as executive director of the MPTC to train the next generation of police,” said Karissa Hand, a Healey spokesperson.
The police training committee falls under Healey’s office of public safety. A spokesperson for Ferullo and the MPTC did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.
The proposal, however, has raised alarms with the state’s inspector general, who said it would set a troubling precedent.
Police chiefs in the past have been allowed one-time exemptions from the pension cap to serve in other departments. But if Healey’s plan is adopted, the MPTC’s director would be the only individual position to get a specific exemption in the state pension statute, Inspector General Jeffrey Shapiro wrote in a letter to lawmakers. Such a move, he wrote, would be “contrary to the purpose of a public pension.”
“This particular [proposal] continues to come up, it’s sort of like whack-a-mole. I think it’s wrong,” Shapiro said in a Globe interview. “It sets a precedent. The public at large feels that these are the kinds of things [where] it’s who you know. And it gives government a really, really bad flavor.”
Healey’s proposal also has municipal leaders in Methuen fuming. A city-funded investigation into alleged misconduct by the city’s former police chief Joseph Solomon, who now faces fraud and perjury charges, also implicated the MPTC and Ferullo.
Solomon had reached out to Ferullo’s training committee, which sets and enforces standards for police across the state, seeking a waiver that would have allowed Sean Fountain, a former city councilor, to work as a police officer even though he was not qualified, according to the report. The waiver was never approved, but the report said Ferullo failed to take steps to prevent Fountain from working as a police officer.
Solomon and Fountain have since been indicted. Ferullo has not been charged. Investigators in the city-funded probe said he refused to cooperate.
Mayor Neil Perry of Methuen said the full investigative report has been sealed in the criminal case, but he urged lawmakers and Healey to try to read it because he said it shows Ferullo has “culpability.” After the Globe contacted Perry about the governor’s proposal, he said he planned to call Healey and Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll immediately with a message.
“If you lobby for this, I’m going to be out there in the public screaming that this is outrageous,” Perry said.
Hand did not respond to questions about Perry’s comment.
The police training committee, which Healey’s administration oversees, is in charge of developing and enforcing training standards for municipal, MBTA, and environmental police officers. It also operates police academies across the state, including in Boylston, Randolph, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lynnfield, and Plymouth.
Ferullo first joined the committee in 2019 as an interim director. Because the Legislature waived the earnings cap in 2020 to allow state and local officials to recruit workers out of retirement to fill open positions in the wake of COVID-19, Ferullo has been able to collect both his full salary and pension for large chunks of his tenure.
Ferullo took home both his pension and $132,825 in salary in 2020 before earning $149,955 in pay, plus his pension, in both 2021 and 2022.
The waiver, however, expired last year, subjecting public retirees to the 1,200-hour-a-year limit, the rough equivalent of a 23-hour average workweek. The cap is itself an increase that lawmakers passed in 2021.
For Ferullo, the limits meant a drastic cut in pay in 2023. Payroll records showed he made $82,000 from the MPTC last year, roughly half of the salary for his position.
Retirees who return to the public sector can opt to temporarily waive their pension payments in order to collect their full salary. Ferullo has never stopped receiving his monthly retirement payments, according to officials at the Woburn Retirement System.
He shouldn’t have to, some argue.
“They’re going to pay somebody to do [the job]. You shouldn’t have to forfeit your hard-earned retirement,” said Frank Frederickson, a retired Yarmouth police chief who now lobbies for the Massachusetts Fraternal Order of Police, which backs Healey’s proposal. “Why was it OK during COVID? The reality is there’s no reason it can’t be done today.”
Frederickson and others praised Ferullo for his work as director, saying he brought a deep-seated knowledge of Massachusetts law to the training committee at a crucial time when it was being asked to implement changes under a sweeping police accountability bill.
“He has taken that agency to a whole new level at the very time that police reform and its requirements kicked in,” said Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. After Ferullo hit the 1,200-limit last year, Leahy said he “kept coming to work and wasn’t getting paid.”
“That’s the extent of his dedication,” he said.
Proponents, including Healey administration officials, say the change would also help the state recruit a larger pool of people for the role within Massachusetts going forward. Representative Richard Haggerty, a Woburn Democrat who filed a similar proposal in the House, called the exemption a “unique instance.”
“It’s really important to get the most well-qualified person we can to train our new law enforcement officers,” said Haggerty, also a former Woburn city councilor whose seat Ferullo filled in 2019. “In this instance, we have someone who was a career law enforcement officer who has a certain set of skills.”
It’s also not the only instance in which Healey is seeking to loosen state retirement rules. In a sweeping municipal package she filed last month, she proposed allowing state or local officials to lift the cap on earnings for retirees for any positions that have a “critical shortage of qualified applicants.”
Shapiro, the state’s inspector general, said he’s personally troubled by repeated attempts to chip away at the pension rules, pointing to another legislative proposal that would exempt municipal police and firefighter retirees who are providing “consulting services” for towns.
“These exemptions tend to be the highest-paid people,” he said. “It’s a not a person who has a $40,000 pension.”