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Survivors of 'hometown heroes' battle for benefits

WASHINGTON — Volunteer Alabama firefighter Martha Bice died 12 years ago, done in by bad smoke. Many courtroom fights later, the Justice Department will finally be settling accounts for this woman Congress considers a hometown hero.

A federal judge has ordered the Justice Department to reimburse the student law clinic that represented Bice's husband through years of legal wrangling. This could further encourage the periodically frustrated families of other fallen public safety officers awaiting their own benefits.

"You would think the government is being asked to pay out money for arsonists and felons, not to the families of those who died to protect us," said Michael McGonnigal, clinical assistant law professor at the Catholic University of America.

McGonnigal oversaw students who spent about 300 hours over several years representing Bice's husband, Charles. Following the protracted legal battle, the Alabama resident was previously awarded $100,000 in federal death benefits.

In a new ruling, a U.S. Court of Federal Claims judge has also ordered the Justice Department to pay Catholic's Columbus School of Law's legal clinic $10,037.77 for work done on Bice's behalf. It's the latest slap at a department that has slowly but surely been chipping away at a big backlog of claims.

The families of several dozen other firefighters and police officers are still seeking their own payments, under the so-called Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act. In the past, persistently slow payments prompted audits, hearings and Capitol Hill finger-pointing.

"The (Justice Department) is notorious for its scorched earth tactics in these cases," McGonnigal said.

Justice Department officials say they are processing claims as efficiently as possible, and have made improvements to streamline their work. It's made a difference. Even a longtime critic, Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., praised the department last month for having "come a long way," while stressing the continuing need to end "months or years of waiting for the families" of fallen officers.

"Claims are unique," the Office of Justice Programs stresses, "and many involve complex legal issues."

The 2003 Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act expanded pre-existing benefits for public safety officers who die in the line of duty. Because of the cardiac stress imposed by firefighting and police work, the 2003 law "presumed" that death by heart attack or stroke was in the line of duty. This established eligibility for payments now reaching $315,000 per family.

In August 2007, for instance, 55-year-old Sierra City, Calif., volunteer firefighter Michael Paul Heuer died of a heart attack while helping rescue an injured fisherman.

Heuer's death appears to meet the standard criteria of the Hometown Heroes law, which permits payments for public safety officers who die "not later than 24 hours" following "stressful or strenuous" physical activity.

But many who die haven't qualified.

From December 2003 through March 2008, the Justice Department received 303 Hometown Heroes Act claims. The department rejected 91, approved 122 and had the others unfinished, the department's Office of Inspector General reported in March.

Justice Department officials were denying many claims because the deaths didn't follow "stressful or strenuous" activity. Officials have since eased up; for instance, by no longer demanding 10 years of medical records. The backlog has since shrunk.

"Frankly, we were slow out of the gate on that program and we should have done better," Attorney General Michael Mukasey told the Fraternal Order of Police in February. "But ... we have made a lot of progress."

Still, Martha Bice's case shows the department at its most stubborn.

Bice fell ill after she and other members of Alabama's West Etowah Fire Department fought a smoky forest fire in October 1996 for several hours. She died a month later at age 59.

The Justice Department rejected Charles Bice's initial claim, contending Martha Bice suffered from a pre-existing heart condition. Bice sued. A federal judge in 2004 ordered another review.

The Justice Department rejected Bice's claim a second time. Again, Bice sued. In 2006, he won again. The department appealed. It lost again. Bice's student attorneys sought reimbursement for their time. The department fought that, too. Last Friday, it lost once more.

"The (Justice Department's) handling of (Bice's) claim was unsupported by the law," claims court Judge Lawrence Baskir declared, and the department's actions were "unreasonable."

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