Judge takes up handicapped spot
Published: Saturday, January 27, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 27, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
TAMPA — Each day, administrative law judge Elving L. Torres decides whether people are disabled enough to receive Social Security benefits.
Sometimes he puts himself in the shoes of people who appear before him: He parks his luxury import car in the handicapped spaces outside the building where he works.
A handicapped parking placard appears on the dashboard of his silver Mercedes-Benz AMG coupe. But it was issued to an 86-year-old woman from Bradenton, according to state motor vehicle records.
At least once this week, by parking in a handicapped spot, Torres, 62, may have denied a woman who uses a wheelchair and works in the same building the ability to park there. She had to park at the far end of the lot and propel herself up an incline to get to her office because there were no empty handicapped spaces.
"Shame on him," said the woman, Raquel Fruchter, 55, who works as a program coordinator for the Arts Council of Hillsborough County and has polio.
State law forbids using another person's handicapped placard unless that person is in the car at the time. It's a misdemeanor, said Frank Penela, spokesman for the state Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles. "Using a handicapped placard is illegal if it's not in your name," he said.
The Social Security Administration hearing rooms are located in the same 10-story building on N Ashley Drive downtown that houses the St. Petersburg Times Tampa offices. A reporter for the Times observed Torres' Mercedes parked in one of the seven handicapped spots directly outside the building seven days in the past three weeks, beginning Jan. 3.
Handicapped placards have a unique number assigned to them and an expiration date. The placard on Torres' dash is a long-term permit that can last up to four years . While it is current, Penela confirmed that the number on it was issued to a Bradenton woman he said he could not identify due to federal laws shielding medical records. Because of those same laws, he could not say whether Torres has a handicapped window tag in his own name.
Through a receptionist, Torres declined to speak to a reporter who inquired about his handicapped placard, referring questions to the Social Security Administration's regional office in Atlanta. He declined to answer questions a second time as he approached his car in the parking lot Wednesday .
"I work for a federal agency," Torres said. "I can't speak to you without approval," he said, adding that he would speak if he received permission.
Bill DeBardelaben, regional communications director for the Social Security Administration, confirmed that Torres is not supposed to speak to the media. He said that if the judge is using someone else's handicapped placard to secure a close-in parking spot, he should not be using it and will not in the future.
"There's no explanation for that kind of stuff," DeBardelaben said. "We will certainly look into it. If it's happening, it's got to stop."
The Social Security Administration, which has a large backlog of cases, uses more administrative judges to settle disputes than any other federal agency, according to a report from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the federal government's human resources office.
Judges for Social Security hear appeals from citizens who have been denied disability benefits at the staff level, making the determination as to whether a person is unable to work full time because of injury or illness and is eligible for benefits.
They must have practiced law for seven years and have passed a competitive test to be considered for appointment to a government agency. They are paid $97,100 to $145,400 annually, according to the federal personnel office.
According to state law, anyone who "fraudulently obtains or unlawfully displays" a handicapped placard while parking in a handicapped space while not transporting its owner can be found guilty of a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
"People should be using hang tags as they are legally and legitimately entitled to have them," said Sandra Sroka, Hillsborough County's Americans with Disabilities liaison.
Little information is available about Torres through public records. Officials at the Social Security Administration said they could not disclose Torres' salary or how long he has worked for the agency or in Tampa without receiving a formal records request, which often takes weeks or months to fulfill.
He received his license to practice law in Puerto Rico and practiced law in Louisiana, according to Martindale-Hubbell, which provides information about the legal profession. The Mercedes has a Virginia license tag.
In 1995, he made a ruling that received considerable attention when he found that a Louisiana child conceived through artificial insemination after the death of her father was entitled to the father's Social Security benefits.
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