Double-dip watch | Arkansas Blog

Double-dip watch

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Stephens Media today followed our reports on the investigation of a potentially huge abuse of the public retirement system by elected officials, particularly at the county level.

Rep. Allen Kerr (R-Little Rock) now says perhaps "hundreds" could have taken advantage of what they thought -- erroneously -- was a loophole in state law. Under it, county elected officials have stopped paychecks for brief periods, called this "retirement" and then resumed drawing both retirement checks and paychecks.

Sen. Steve Faris, who is a legislative point man on retirement issues, says the county officials are wrong if they're doing it and taking advantage of a law aimed, not at them, but at long-time state employees.

The law was not intended to benefit elected officials, who already receive two years of retirement benefits for each year they service in office, Faris said.

“It’s just a greedy grab. They ought to be ashamed of themselves,” Faris said, noting that county elected officials already receive two years of retirement credit for every year they serve.

So, under the public employees' retirement system, 25 years of service is worth 50 on the formula for figuring public benefits. In a contributory retirement plan, paid at 2 percent of closing pay for each year of service, that means an official could "retire" at full pay, plus the regular paycheck. (Does that make this triple dipping?) In a non-contributory plan, the employee would make about 87 percent of regular pay in "retirement" pay.

Simple fix. Those who didn't legally vacate their offices should be identified. There needs to be a finding that their retirements never occurred. This would have the benefit of insuring that all the actions take by these officials during the faux retirement were. Then, they must be made to repay the retirement paid them since they "took office" again.

Why do I think a canny lawyer might be hitting the law books? Illegal exaction, anyone?

UPDATE: The Hot Springs Sentinel Record had a good followup today on their story about three county officials there who surreptitiously pulled this deal, stopping pay while continuing to work and then drawing two checks. Some excerpts:

The majority of the members of the Garland County Quorum Court say they were not aware that three Garland County elected officials removed themselves from the county payroll for 90 days in 2008 purportedly to file for retirement benefits.
    From September through November, Circuit Clerk Vicki Rima, Treasurer Jo West-Taylor and Assessor Brenda Short worked uncompensated – all while continuing to perform the duties of their respective offices. The three have declined to comment.
    District 10 Justice of the Peace Sue Vaughn, chairwoman of the Garland County Human Resources Committee, said she was never told the three elected officials removed themselves from the county payroll.
    “I definitely think we should have known, and it’s an issue that should have been brought to us,” she said.

.....County Judge Larry Williams, who also was eligible last year for APERS retirement benefits but did not file, said the only persons who knew about the retirements were himself, Valerie Dodge, administrative assistant for human services and fiscal affairs for Williams, “the people in the (County) Clerk’s office,” the three officials in question and “anybody they told.”
    Williams said only the quorum court has the power to appoint a replacement for elected officials. While the Garland County Quorum Court did not appoint replacements for the three county officials during their 90 days off the payroll, Union County Judge Bobby Edmonds, of El Dorado, did.

...In his opinion, McDaniel said it could be unlawful for individuals, who are responsible for reporting wage and service information to the retirement system, to report that a member has terminated employment for retirement purposes when, in fact, the member continues to occupy the covered position.
    He said possible offenses include abuse of office, abuse of public trust, theft of public benefits, falsifying a public record and tampering with public record.

UPDATE: Garland County officials Rima and West-Taylor are high officials of, respectively, the Association of Arkansas Counties and the County Treasurers Association. In addition to the rising number of anecdotal reports, that adds to suggestion that this scheme was widely known about and, Kerr believes, widely implemented.

.....

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