Column: Sweet pensions, secrecy laws: L.A. has its own ugly swamp that needs draining, but where’s the leadership?
This is it.
I’m going into retirement and wanted you to be the first to know.
But I worked out a really sweet deal with my employer.
I’m going to keep writing columns for five more years so that I can collect my regular pay and my retirement pay simultaneously.
It’s a double-dip bonanza.
All I’ve got to do is promise to hang it up in five years, at which time I will be handed a fat check roughly equal to what I earned over the last five years of my career.
Sound like a deal too good to be true?
Unfortunately for me and for you, it is. Unless you work for the Los Angeles Police Department or Fire Department.
As Jack Dolan reported, brand new LAPD Chief Michel Moore hit the jackpot. He came out of the fabulous Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) with a $1.27-million windfall, but didn’t retire after five years. Instead, he became chief, kept the $1.27 million, and now gets more than $300,000 in salary plus his $240,000 annual pension.
Is this a triple dip? A quadruple dip? And is Moore’s $170,000 payout for unused sick and vacation days the sprinkles?
Maybe you missed the story, or decided not to read it because your blood pressure was so high from reading all the other recent exposes in The Times and you feared you might blow a gasket.
It really has been a summer of head-smacking stories that make you want to start recall petitions.
Did you see the one about the five-person, $2,768 LAPD security detail that covered the blessed matrimony of L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson’s son and a staffer in Councilwoman Nury Martinez’s office?
Were they planning a 21-gun salute? Were they expecting bank robbers and other fugitives to attend the wedding?
And why no screaming from our fearless mayor and the members of City Council? If the security detail was the LAPD’s call and a defensible expense, as we were told, why did Wesson’s son say — after the story by Dave Zahniser and Richard Winton — that he’d cover the expense after all?
Did you catch the story about L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy Jose Ovalle and the taco sauce caper? As reported by Corina Knoll, Ben Poston and Maya Lau, a bloody shirt from a jail melee went missing, so the industrious Ovalle grabbed a clean one, poured taco sauce on it and took a photo.
Every time I eat a taco now, I’m going to have to check closely to make sure the condiment is Tapatio. Are deputies carrying La Victoria bottles in their holsters, next to the gun, the Mace and the baton? And how does a deputy pull a stunt like that and not get fired? An attempted dismissal ended in a mere 30-day suspension for Ovalle.
That story and follow-ups in The Times made a broader point. At trial in California, criminal defendants, their attorneys and juries are often unaware of deputy misconduct that might torpedo their credibility. This follows a Times investigation that revealed a secret list of 300 L.A. County deputies with histories of dishonesty and misconduct.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s attempt to release the list has been blocked by the rank and file union. Where’s the clamor from local leaders, and why does California have among the strictest secrecy laws on police misconduct?
In another brewing drama, Melanie Mason, Harriet Ryan and Matt Hamilton have reported that Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, who resigned abruptly last year from his state Assembly seat because of unspecified health problems, was in fact the subject of two sexual harassment complaints at the time.
The young Ridley-Thomas, who has denied wrongdoing, was just in the news for his curious appointment to a professorship in the social work school at scandal-plagued USC, which is in the throes of a sexual misconduct case involving a former campus gynecologist accused of mistreating hundreds of women, as exposed by The Times.
And let’s not forget, that former assemblyman’s father, L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas — a man many consider a potential mayoral candidate — made a $100,000 donation to USC’s school of social work from his campaign funds. The same school that gave his son a scholarship — in addition to the professorship — so he can go for a master’s degree.
Please do not send me a doctor’s bill if your head just exploded. The public corruption and civil rights section of the U.S. attorney’s office says it has referred the Ridley-Thomas case for criminal investigation, so stay tuned.
I could go on with various and sundry tales of life in the big city, but I want to get back to DROP.
Chief Moore didn’t do anything wrong or break any rules. He just played the DROP game extremely well. But now he stands under a cloud at the very start of his administration.
I’ve got the perfect solution for him. I had breakfast with new LAUSD Supt. Austin Beutner Thursday, and he talked about his desire to keep schools open after the last bell rings, so that in the evening and on weekends they become community centers, with job training and mentoring along with access to the libraries and gyms.
This would be a great crime deterrent, but the schools would need to be staffed after hours, and that costs money. So how about a nonprofit to do just that, with a sizable start-up donation from Chief Moore, who could put part of his $1.2 million to good use?
I sent my pitch to a Moore aide, and I’ll let you know if I get a response.
I have nothing against pensions, by the way. After 43 years on the job, I’m almost 65 and will soon have two pensions from my earlier days in the news biz. But they’re tiny, they were long ago replaced by 401(k)s, and they’re not covered by taxpayers.
L.A.’s voter-approved DROP program began when Dick Riordan was mayor, ostensibly as a way to retain cops and firefighters with experience and special skills in the wake of departures after the Rampart scandal. Cops and firefighters continued collecting their salaries for five years, and in that time, their pension payments were set aside along with a 5% bump, to be cashed in when they retired. But Riordan has said the program was a mistake and has become “a total fraud.”
Fighting crime and fires is tough work, and not everyone abused DROP. But as The Times reported, cops and firefighters in the program were twice as likely to miss work for injuries, illness or leaves, but still collect both their pay and the DROP benefits. Those taking disability leave missed 2.4 million hours of work and collected $220 million for time off.
More than a third of the police officers in the program and 70% of the firefighters went out on paid injury leave. Three weeks after enrolling in DROP, a firefighter went out on disability when he “injured” a knee on the job. Two months later, while double dipping, he ran a half-marathon.
What does it take for Mayor Garcetti — who is distracted, perhaps, by dreams of being president — and the council to say enough already? If the program was ever needed, it no longer is. We’re paying double time to people who belly up to the gravy train, and the whole thing should be DROP-kicked.
At the very least, if you’re in DROP but don’t go to work because of injury or illness, you should lose pension pay for the time you’re off. That’s something Garcetti and Chief Moore say they’d go for, and negotiations are continuing.
But what’s taking so long?
In 2016, when Miguel Santana was L.A.’s administrative executive, he warned that DROP was not “cost-neutral,” as voters had been promised. Garcetti said he wasn’t sure Santana’s findings were reliable. Councilman Paul Koretz, who along with other council members and Garcetti received handsome donations from police and firefighter unions, said Santana’s contention was “half-baked.”
I’d say the same about anyone who tells me, without a wink, that we’ve got real political leadership in this town.
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