Convicted Orange County sheriff collects $215,000 pension

Orange County pension records show that convicted former Sheriff Michael S. Carona collected about $215,000 last year in retirement payments — and he was just one of more than 400 county pensioners who received more than $100,000 in retirement in 2009.

Carona, who was convicted last year of witness tampering, remains free on bail pending appeal. But his indictment in 2007 rocked the county and forced major changes to the county's top law enforcement agency.

Also on the list is former county Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron, whose investments led Orange County into bankruptcy in 1994. He collected about $142,000 last year.

The information was released by the Orange County Employees Retirement System following a lawsuit by the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, which advocates for pension reform and has filed similar suits throughout the state. The county retirement agency initially refused to provide the information, saying that releasing the names of those who receive large pensions would compromise their privacy.

For many in the county — whose leaders tend to portray themselves as stringent boosters of fiscal responsibility — the data have put renewed focus on how pension benefits are doled out. The county's retirement system currently faces a $3.7-billion unfunded liability.

"I am thrilled that finally the truth is coming out," said Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., the county's largest public employees union. "It is not the workers who are huge recipients of these pensions. It is the managers and the executives that are hauling away the big, big bucks."

The data also have reopened debate over a generous pension plan for retired public safety workers that was approved in 2001, when Carona was sheriff and deputies unions throughout the state were pushing for similar benefits.

About 36% — or about 150 — of the highest paid Orange County pensioners are former sheriff's employees, according to the data.

The benefit is called "3% at 50," which means deputies can retire at age 50 and receive 3% of their highest year's pay for every year of service. It was applied retroactively to previous years of service. Before the change, the employees received 2%. At the time, critics said the new plan amounted to a retroactive pay raise.

"It was right after Sept. 11," recalled Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach. "All of a sudden, public safety people became elevated to god status…. The Board of Supervisors were tripping over themselves to make the motion."

Ultimately, Moorlach said, "it was one of the biggest shifts of money from the private sector to the public sector." He was not on the board when the pension plan was approved.

Moorlach led county supervisors to file suit to repeal the benefit, saying voters should have been given the chance to approve the change. The suit was rejected in Los Angeles County Superior Court last year and is now pending appeal.

At the time the suit was initially pursued, Carona voiced strong opposition, calling its filing a "nuclear bomb" for deputies.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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