Former Health Commissioner Tom Farley at the Pa. Convention Center in February 2021

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Former Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley will receive a pension after stepping down over his mishandling of remains collected from the 1985 MOVE bombing, city officials confirmed to Billy Penn.

The city will be paying more than $2,500 each month to the former health chief, who resigned on May 13 at the request of Mayor Jim Kenney.

That payout will add to the notoriously burdensome pension system Philly taxpayers have been saddled with for more than 50 years.

Philadelphia’s pension situation has recently improved somewhat. It’s now considered the fourth worst per capita burden among the nation’s 75 largest cities, according to nonpartisan think tank Truth in Accounting. That’s up from second worst a decade ago. A 2019 Pew study found the city is on track to a sustainable program by 2035. But as things stand, covering Philly’s pension debt would cost $27,500 per resident.

City employees can only lose that pension if they’re convicted of a crime related to their job, according to Kenney spokesperson Deana Gamble.

That’s not the case with Farley, who didn’t even break a workplace rule when he directed his staff to incinerate and discard remains thought to be MOVE members killed in the bombing without notifying anyone.

Specific rules around handling of remains and notifying families will likely be implemented in the future. Kenney has pledged a review of these policies, and acting Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole has indicated she’s looking into immediate changes. But as of now, the Medical Examiner’s Office does not have a formal protocol, Gamble said.

Here’s her breakdown of how the pension will work for Farley, who made about $165,000 per year when he resigned:

  • He chose a pension plan that he became entitled to after five years of service. Since he was appointed in 2016, the plan is active.
  • That plan requires the recipient to be at least 60 years old to get paid. Farley is in his mid-60s.
  • The payout will equal about $2,600 a month, or a little more than $31k a year, ostensibly for the rest of his life.

The amount taxpayers owe the former commissioner could have been higher. If he’d already set a retirement date and opted into Philly’s controversial DROP retirement plan, which allows city workers to accrue pension payments while still earning a salary, he would have received a lump sum payout upon leaving.

Farley said he acted on his own in 2017 when he told Medical Examiner Sam Gulino to dispose of the remains, which were later discovered, apparently because a subordinate employee disobeyed Farley’s directive. They consisted of 11 different specimens of bone and organs. Gulino has been put on administrative leave pending the city’s investigation into the matter.

Farley told the Inquirer it’s common practice for the Medical Examiner’s Office to keep specimens for research and throw out human remains “without notifying anyone.”

The city has hired Philly-based, globally-active law firm Dechert LLP to run its investigation into what transpired regarding the city’s handling of MOVE family remains.

While the city has maintained there’s no rules on the books about obtaining, researching and disposing of human remains, an investigation will be able to confirm whether that’s true. The investigation will also determine “why these remains were held for decades, and why they were still held after being directed to be cremated,” Kenney said in a statement.

Kenney also said a complete overhaul of the Medical Examiner’s policies and procedures is “on the table.” He said he’s been in touch with the Africa family and offered an apology on behalf of the city.

The bones and organs from MOVE bombing victims that Farley ordered disposed in 2017 represent a different set of remains than those the Penn Museum and Princeton held for decades. The bone fragments held by the academic institutions reportedly belonged to Katricia “Tree” Africa, who died at 14, and Delisha Africa, who was 12. The institutions used the fragments in teaching videos, stored them in cardboard boxes, and allowed them to travel with a now-retired Penn professor.

Penn Museum and the city have said they’re working to return all remains from MOVE bombing victims to their families.

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...