Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How Gary Dobbert’s Buddies Got Yet Another Pension Benefit

By - Jan 15th, 2002 01:28 pm
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It’s hard to believe there could be any more scandal associated with the Milwaukee County, but it turns out there was yet another group of insiders handed a neat pension boost by the administration of County Executive F. Thomas Ament.

On November 19, 1999, the county pension board, which is dominated by appointees of Ament, voted to give credit for pension payments to any county workers who had once worked as CETA workers. CETA stands for the Comprehensive Employment & Training Act, a 1970s federal program of subsidized employment that was locally administered by Milwaukee County and specifically excluded participants from pension benefits.

No matter. This is the county that loves to give away pension benefits. Courtesy of Ament’s pension board, some 80 employees were given credit for additional years of service, meaning they will grab county pension benefits worth more than $1.1 million. This will require an annual contribution of $51,712 by the county. Some of these employees retired years ago, and were sent retroactive checks, according to county records.

“It’s the A team,” says one county insider, “that’s who’s getting the benefits.” Among the employees who benefited from this provision are David Zepecki, former county board member who now works as the county’s Director of Economic Development, and Tom Kuzma, whom Ament found a job after he was let go from the county research staff by board chair Karen Ordinans, and Terry Kocourek, Fiscal and Budget Administrator. County Treasurer Dorothy Dean is also on the list of eligible employees, but she was granted the right to count her CETA time for pension purposes by the county board back in 1988.

Kuzma, Kocourek, and Deputy Zoo Director Grant Dobberfuhl, who also got credit for his CETA time, are “good buddies of Dobbert,” says one county insider.

Krug questions why CETA work should be credited for pension payments. “It was a make-work and training program,” says Supervisor Robert Krug. “Were they really county employees?”

Not according to former county corporate counsel Robert P. Russsell, who wrote a 1977 memo about CETA noting that federal regulations specifically stated such employees would not get pension benefits. “The county board in establishing the program specifically provided that such employees should not be members of the pension system.” Russell added. Later in the memo he reiterates that these employees were “specifically excluded by action of the county board.”

In addition, a 1972 memo by Russell and a 1976 memo by his assistant corporate counsel, Patrick J. Foster, offer similar legal opinions that CETA workers are not eligible for pension benefits.

Some 25 years later, Ament’s head of human resources, Gary Dobbert, approached Krug, who was then the head of the county board’s personnel committee, asking to extend service credit for county workers who began in CETA. “It didn’t smell right,” Krug recalls. “Some top people in the Ament administration would be eligible for this.”

Krug talked to county board chair Karen Ordinans and finance chair Lynne DeBruin, and both opposed the idea as well. “Board members had been saying for years that if there’s any additional pension benefits, the group we’d like to see get it are older retirees who are veterans of World War II,” DeBruin notes.

“Dobbert knew Krug had the backing of the board chair and the finance chair, so he dropped it,” De Bruin adds.

Instead, Dobbert went through the back door, approaching the Pension Board for its approval. This board has seven members, with three elected by county employees, and four appointed by the county executive. Ament’s four appointees include one supervisor, Michael Mayo.

Dobbert provided them with a memo explaining why this benefit should be provided. Dobbert noted the City of Milwaukee had extended this credit to its CETA employees, and the county had extended it to employees of the public museum when the county took this over from the city. He also noted the special exception for Dean and a few other employees who once worked in the County Office of Aging.

But his memo concedes CETA employees at the time were told they wouldn’t get pension benefits, and that detailed records of the CETA program cannot be located and have probably been destroyed. (The city extended this credit long ago, when records were still available.) When Dean received her credit, she signed an affidavit attesting to her time of service and the county took her word for it. County records requested by Milwaukeeworld.com turned up no evidence of CETA work performed by the 80 county workers given credit for it, so the county may have, again, simply taken their word for this.

Dobbert also wrote “no specific action taken by the county board to withhold this benefit can be identified,” which seems to overlook the many legal opinions cited above (which were written when the program was created rather than 25 years after the fact).

According to Michael Columbo, a member of the pension board, current corporate counsel Robert Ott advised the board this provision would be legal. Dobbert’s memo quoted the county’s pension ordinance, which declares “the decision of the pension board shall be final” on any questions related to “the right of any person in the service of the county to be classified as an employee under this act.”

Pension board member Cliff Van Beck was upset by the proposal. He notes that seasonal workers for the county who try to get credit for this work from the county pension are required to purchase the credit. “It winds up being extremely expensive. One employee I know had to make four payments of $23,000 for this.” Apparently, these workers lack friends in high places.

Van Beck says there was “a heated discussion” about the proposal, but the minutes of the meeting show the proposal passed unanimously. “We knew we were doomed to lose,” Van Beck says, since Ament controls four appointees.

Mayo says he just assumed this was something the county board would later have to approve. Now, he says “I have some concerns that we gave a benefit that wasn’t approved by the board.”

“It’s they way it was passed that raises questions,” says DeBruin.

“Once the issue was raised with the board, they certainly had an obligation to pursue that with the board instead of what appears to be a back door operation,” Krug complains.

It goes without saying that reporters do not attend the pension board meetings. Dobbert managed to get this passed so quietly it took two years for county supervisors to find about it. If not for the recent furor over the pension system, they’d still be in the dark. Now that’s representative government.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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