Former Bell police chief had a lucrative tax angle for retirement

Former Bell Police Chief Randy Adams had himself declared disabled even as he was hired for the post, a move that could make him millions of dollars in tax-free pension income when he retires, according to records and interviews.

An agreement that Adams struck with former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo, who was arrested on corruption charges Tuesday, says that the incoming chief suffered the lingering effects of back, knee and neck injuries sustained years earlier and that the municipality would support his planned application for a disability pension.

He filed for a less lucrative non-disability retirement as he prepared to leave his job as Glendale police chief. That application was approved, but he rescinded it the same month his service officially ended in Glendale and he went to work for Bell in July 2009, Glendale and state pension officials say.

Pension experts and Adams' former employers questioned the legality of the Bell agreement, in part because it meant the city determined him unfit for the position's full-time duties and employed him anyway.

"He was not disabled," said Glendale City Manager Jim Starbird, who was Adams' boss until he left for Bell. "I never heard of someone going to work for a city and having that [disability] determination made going in. I don't know how you hire someone who is disabled and not fit for the job."

Adams' attorney, Mark Pachowicz, said his 59-year-old client was disabled and the agreement was designed to ensure that he would not have to fight Bell for a medical pension.

"Mr. Adams wanted to make sure that the city was well aware of his physical capabilities," Pachowicz said. "He made all of that clear and upfront. He didn't want the city to come back and say we didn't know you had a bad back."

Disability pensions are designed for employees who must give up a job because of a work-related injury. Those who qualify do not have to pay taxes on 50% of their retirement benefits, which is intended to compensate them for lost earnings, said spokespersons for the California Public Employees' Retirement System.

"You're only supposed to receive a disability retirement if you are disabled and unable to perform the normal duties of your job," said spokesman Ed Fong. "If that is not the case, it would be fraud."

Unlike Rizzo and seven other current and former Bell officials, Adams has not been charged by Los Angeles County prosecutors in this week's sweeping corruption case.

Rizzo, Adams and Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia stepped down from their posts after The Times disclosed their high salaries in July.

Adams was paid $457,000 a year in Bell, more than double his salary in Glendale, whose police force is many times larger. The jump in pay normally would grant Adams retirement benefits calculated at $411,000, although CalPERS has said it will not approve payments to him, Rizzo and other former Bell officials until authorities have determined that no laws were broken.

With the disability pension, Adams would not have to pay state or federal taxes on an estimated $205,500 per year, according to CalPERS.

In a civil lawsuit filed last week, the state attorney general accused Rizzo, Adams and others of being part of a broad scheme to loot Bell's treasury. The suit said Rizzo hired Adams despite believing he "was not able to fully perform" his duties.

It also took aim at the city's promise to support a disability retirement and to provide lifetime healthcare benefits to Adams and his dependents, with no vesting period. The suit did not specifically challenge his claimed disability, detail how much he stood to benefit from it or refer to his almost simultaneous filing for a non-disability pension.

The one-page pension agreement signed by Rizzo says that Adams had previous knee and back surgeries as well as a neck injury, and all were job-related. It says Adams has "limitations to full-time law enforcement duty and is disabled from heavy lifting" and "experiences flare-ups of debilitating back pain and numbness in his left foot," resulting from the back injury.

The document indicates that the back injury led Adams to file a workers' compensation claim against Glendale and his two prior employers, Simi Valley and Ventura, and that it was being "litigated" by the cities. Officials for the three cities said they settled the case. Ventura City Manager Rick Cole said the amount paid to Adams was $45,000, most of it from Simi Valley.

Pachowicz said Adams had back surgery in 2003 and returned to work in Glendale two weeks later. Starbird said Adams never told him that his back trouble left him unable to perform full-time duties. He said the workers' comp claim would not have qualified him for a disability pension.

In addition, recently released records show that Adams initially signed separate contracts that split his pay between two positions: police chief and "special police counsel" to Rizzo. The contracts are dated April 2009, but Pachowicz said they were dated incorrectly and were actually signed this year. He said Rizzo told Adams he wanted to create the police counsel position in anticipation of having him head a regional law enforcement agency that Rizzo hoped to launch in southeast L.A. County.

Authorities have accused Rizzo of trying to hide his $787,000 salary by dividing it among several job titles. Pachowicz said that the two contracts Adams signed were not an attempt to conceal his full salary.

According to the attorney general's lawsuit, Spaccia instructed Adams not to state in his contract how many pay periods were included in a year.

"We have crafted our Agreements carefully so we do not draw attention to our pay," Spaccia wrote to Adams, the lawsuit says. "The word Pay Period is used and not defined in order to protect you from someone taking the time to add up your salary."

Spaccia has been described by city officials as a close friend of Adams who first worked with him in Ventura. Pachowicz said they were not that close but that Spaccia was the Bell official who recruited Adams for the job.

Starbird said no one from Bell City Hall called him to inquire about Adams' disability claim or his suitability for the job. As someone who hired Adams six years before and continued to think highly of him, Starbird said, he had counseled Adams not to work for Bell because of its history of corruption.

"I said, 'Why Bell?' and he said the package was too good to refuse," Starbird recounted.

"What's disappointing is that Randy didn't recognize this situation and that it was going to cast him and us in a bad light. There was a level of corruption in Bell that he capitalized on. He lost his values along the way."

paul.pringle@latimes.com

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