CalPERS slashes Vernon officials’ pensions

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Two former administrators in the city of Vernon who received lavish compensation will have their retirement benefits slashed in what state pension officials described as the largest public pension reduction in state history.

Bruce Malkenhorst, who had the biggest public pension in California, $545,000 a year, will see his yearly benefit drop to about $115,000. His successor, Eric T. Fresch, will have his pension stripped completely. Fresch, who made as much as $1.6 million in 2008, has yet to formally retire but one expert estimated his pension’s value at about $300,000 a year.

The actions come after a lengthy audit by the California Public Employees Retirement System, which found Vernon improperly boosted the retirement benefits of nearly two dozen top employees. The agency also ruled that Vernon had erroneously awarded “public safety” pensions to Fresch and other staff attorneys. The Times first reported on the safety pensions in 2010.

State Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), who has been leading a reform effort in the industrial city, said the CalPERS decision to cut Fresch and Malkenhorst’s pensions was a victory for taxpayers.

“For decades, these grifters scammed the system and today the system finally struck back,” he said.

It is unclear whether Fresch or Malkenhorst will challenge the decisions, or if Vernon will do so on their behalf. In its intial response to CalPERS audit, the city argued that the retirement fund “owes its primary fiduciary duty to its members and must construe the evidence in their favor whenever possible.”

A Vernon spokesman said Thursday that the city was still reviewing CalPERS determinations and declined to comment on the possiblity of an appeal. Fresch and Malkenhorst could not be reached for comment.

In Malkenhorst’s case, CalPERS concluded that Vernon had failed to substantiate the total pay rate he received. Malkenhorst held as many as 10 different positions during his 29-year tenure in the city government, including city administrator, clerk, finance director and executive director of the Vernon Historic Preservation society. Through those titles, he was able to earn as much as $911,000 in total salary.

CalPERS, however, determined that only Malkenhorst’s pay as city clerk was properly reported for purposes of his pension.

Fresch, on the other hand, will lose his entire pension because CalPERS concluded he was not an actual employee but an independent contractor. Fresch never took an oath of office for his positions as city administrator, city attorney or assistant city attorney, CalPERS said in a formal letter obtained by The Times. And several of his employment agreements referred to him as a consultant or advisor.

Three other former Vernon officials will lose pension benefits due to similar issues, including Malkenhorst’s son, Bruce Jr. CalPERS also found problems in the pensions of two of the city’s current leaders: city administrator Mark Whitworth and finance director Riordan Burnett.

Brad Pacheco, a spokesman for the retirement fund, said it would collect any overpayments made in the last three years.

“It’s the public agency’s responsibility to follow the law,” he said. “They need to know about these issues.”

De Leon said he planned to formally request a criminal investigation from the state Attorney General’s office.

“It isn’t enough that they forfeit their gains,” he said. “They must be punished to deter other scam artists from ripping off taxpayers in the future.”