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Ex-Suffolk sheriff awarded enhanced pension, but rule questioned

Former state public safety secretary Andrea Cabral.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

The state Retirement Board approved the retirement of former state public safety secretary Andrea Cabral on Thursday, despite the objections of several legislators who questioned whether she should receive an enhanced pension based on two public service jobs she previously held.

Representative Paul R. Heroux, a Democrat from Attleboro, acknowledged in an interview after the action that the board had no discretion in processing Cabral’s pension, based on a law that has been on the books for decades.

That law seeks to compensate police officers, firefighters, correction officers, and other public servants who face danger in their jobs by allowing them to retire with full pension benefits 10 years earlier than other public employees.

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Cabral qualified for the enhanced pension because she served as Suffolk County sheriff for 10 years and before that, as a Suffolk assistant district attorney for many years. The law explicitly classifies sheriff and assistant district attorney as dangerous positions. Cabral served as public safety secretary for almost three years until a replacement was appointed last month by Governor Charlie Baker, but she was not credited with facing danger in that position.

Cabral’s “life was not put on the line,” Heroux wrote to the retirement board, referring to her tenures as sheriff and assistant district attorney. “It would belittle those who do risk their lives to classify her job as equivalent to theirs.”

That letter was signed by six state representatives and state Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Republican from Weymouth.

Heroux said the law should be changed to give the retirement board discretion to deny enhanced benefits to retiring sheriffs and district attorneys, among others, but not police or firefighters.

He said retiring sheriffs and assistant district attorneys should be made to prove to the retirement board that they were actually in dangerous situations before getting the enhanced pensions.

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“We need to at least explore it,” Heroux said of a possible change in the law.

Baker issued a statement that did not mention Cabral but said “hazard pay should be reserved only for the brave men and women working on the front lines of public safety every day. Taxpayers pick up the bill here and public pension funds should be doled out responsibly.”

The push to allow state prosecutors to receive enhanced pensions followed the shooting death of Paul McLaughlin, an assistant Suffolk district attorney murdered in 1995.