Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How Ament Prevented Any Research of the Pension Plan

By - Jan 16th, 2002 12:45 pm
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Over and over the question has recurred: why would county supervisors, most of whom will not get the more lucrative pension payoff for veteran workers, approve this deal? The problem, it appears, is that the board’s research staff was loyal to County Executive F. Thomas Ament.

“It’s a joke, “says Supervisor Roger Quindel. “You have a compromised research staff.”

“They’re supposed to working for us. They’re supposed to be helping us make decisions.”

“We have some staff members who are wonderful,” Supervisor Lynne DeBruin says, “but we also have had some staff where I was concerned what information was getting back to Tom Ament.”

County Board chair Karen Ordinans was particularly concerned about Tom Kuzma, who served as head of the county board research staff when the pension plan was passed. “It’s very well known that Kuzma was good friends with Gary Dobbert and Bob Ott,” she says. Dobbert, director of Human Resources and chief architect of the plan, and Ott, the county corporation counsel who’s been accused of lobbying for the plan by supervisors, were just asked to resign by Ament.

Kuzma, as our last story revealed, was also one of the “buddies” of Dobbert who got extra pension benefits because of a deal Dobbert passed in 1999 that gave service credit for pension payments to county employees who once worked for CETA.

Ordinans said she decided to replace Kuzma because of his connection to Ament, and her fear that she was not getting truly independent research from her staff. She dumped him in August 2001, nearly a year after the new pension plan was passed, and garnered criticism (in a stinging story by the Milwaukee Journal’s Spivak and Bice) because Kuzma had cancer. “I had wanted to make a change earlier but because he had cancer I had held off,” Ordinans says.

Kuzma was immediately given a job with the Ament administration, as a special assistant in the Department of Administration.

Kuzma denies that he was compromised by his loyalty to Ament. “She must be getting real desperate because that was never brought up to me,” he says of Ordinans. But he doesn’t deny his friendship with Dobbert and Ott. “After you work in the courthouse for 30 years you do become friendly with people.”

Kuzma, in fact, concedes a problem with Ordinans: “She never trusted me or any of the older staff there. We did not even provide a report analyzing [the pension plan].”

The county board has a staff of six research analysts who are supposed to provide an independent look at any laws proposed by the county executive. In the case of the pension plan, Robert Murphy was assigned by Kuzma to staff the personnel committee and provide research.

Both Kuzma and Murphy were hired prior to 1982, which means they are eligible for the generous 25 percent increase in pension benefits as well as the lucrative backdrop provision that rewards veteran employees. Murphy, however, denies that this influenced his recommendation in favor of the pension plan: “I didn’t run numbers on myself. In my head I took a guesstimate of what it would be.”

In an interview last fall, Murphy defended the pension provision as a way to retain long-term employees. “The county has some very talented people and the private sector often wants them.” Murphy, however, offered no examples of such talent raids. He also defended the pension because “working in government is very demanding, because you’re always in the public eye.” We shall pass over the many ironies of this observation.

“Bob Murphy clearly thought it was a wonderful package,” says DeBruin, the board’s chair of finance, who voted against the pension plan. DeBruin says she had suspicions about the plan, “but I felt I really didn’t have someone who sympathized with my opinions. If he’s already sold on the package, it’s hard to get independent research.”

Kuzma denies that DeBruin or Ordinans brought up any questions. “We weren’t asked to look at any of that.”

“They didn’t ask us to run figures on individual employees,” says Murphy. “It’s not our job to start looking at individual employees and what would happen unless we’re asked to do that.”

But Quindel says he asked Murphy for a verbal report after my October story reported on Ament’s $2 million pension pay out. “Murphy said there was nothing wrong with [the pension plan],” Quindel recalls. “I felt he was advocating for it. Murphy lobbies for [policy] positions all the time instead of doing research.”

As a county researcher, Kuzma worked for Ament from 1976-1992, during the 16 years Ament was board chairman. Murphy, who switched from a different county department to the board research staff in 1987, worked under Ament for five years.

Since becoming board chair in 1996, Ordinans has overseen the research staff. “She said she wanted me to report to her only,” Kuzma reveals. “I said I believe I work for all 25 supervisors, not just for her.”

But as Quindel puts it, “if you’re not working for the board majority when there’s a dispute with the executive, then you’re obviously working for Ament.”

In interviews last November, many supervisors said that during Ordinans’ tenure as board chair, Ament has had more power over the board than Ordinans. “The rest of the board members know they have to work with Ament to get anything done,” said supervisor LeeAnn Launstein.

“It’s easy for Ament to pick off a coalition [of board members] on various issues,” said Ald. Terrence Herron, a former county board member. “I’ve never seen Tom want something and not get it.”

“He’s our benevolent dictator,” said Supervisor Robert Krug. “Ament gets about 95 percent of what he wants.”

Kuzma says Ordinans could have gone to another county research analyst if she was dissatisfied with Murphy. “She went to [analyst] Rob Henken for everything. If they’re saying we’re not loyal, she had a loyal one, why didn’t she go to him?”

Ament Blames the Messenger

All the king’s men and women were lined up behind Tom Ament as he did his dramatic news conference announcing his decision to ask for the resignation of the three henchmen, including Ott, Dobbert and labor relations director Henry Zielinski. Ament had every department head and cabinet member standing behind him, as he read his speech. Once finished, he bolted for the door, after telling the press he wouldn’t take any questions for several days. Some oddball citizen handing out Ament dunce caps yelled to the county executive “here’s your dunce cap!” The look he got from Ament as the county exec walked out the door was a memorable amalgam of alarm, disgust and downright amazement. These are not good days for Tom Ament.

And it turns out it’s all the media’s fault. We had the wrong figures because we didn’t know the pension payouts were so high that the Internal Revenue Service wouldn’t allow it. “There is no lump sum backdrop payment for me and there never was,” Ament declared. Well, actually, Tom, the figures from the actuary quoted in the Journal Sentinel suggest the county exec can still collect $2.3 million, if he forgoes the additional monthly pension. And by the way, Ament will also get paid up health insurance for life.

But Ament insisted we were all wrong, and could have gotten the true story had we simply checked with the county pension office.

Hm. It was back in September that I called Jac Amerell, the secretary to the Pension Board and the man who computes the county’s pensions. I had already gotten the particulars from other sources, but I spent several hours and a couple phone calls verifying the details of the backdrop. After computing Ament’s pension, I sent Amerell my numbers and he said it looked right to him.

My October 10 story included a click-on page where I went through my math, and how Ament’s $2 million pension was figured. Soon copies of the story were floating around the courthouse. But Ament never called me to explain what was wrong.

In November, while working on a follow-up story for Milwaukee Magazine, I called Ament’s chief of staff Tom Mollan and told him about this story and asked if he had any corrections. Nope, he said. I interviewed Ament and he offered no counter statistic on his pension, instead asking, “what’s the headline on this story going to say, Ament gets millions?”

By this time, the county board had launched an investigation, in response to my website story. Ament offered the board no other estimate of his salary. Then, in mid-December, my Milwaukee Magazine story reported his pension, as well as that of County Supervisor Tom Bailey. As had been done previously, the Milwaukee Magazine website offered my math, and Ament and Mollan never called to offer any correction.

In December, Journal Sentinel reporters began working on the story and Ament did not alert them that I had made an error. On January 6, the newspaper did its first story, estimating his backdrop payout at $2.3 million. Ament offered no correction until January 15, more than three months after the story was first reported.

Here’s the most delicious irony. The revelation that the IRS might limit Ament’s booty probably came not from the county pension officials, but from the Journal Sentinel’s Avrum Lank, who began calling Ament about this because of Lank’s knowledge of IRS law. The newspaper, in the course of doing admirable research, provided a fig leaf for Ament. A very small fig leaf.

Finally, for those math majors, why did Lank and the Journal Sentinel originally come up with $2.3 million, compared to my $2.04 million. I used a compound interest rate of 8.5 percent, and did not adjust it to 9 percent (which occurs in 2002). To be safe, I felt it was better to underestimate. Lank, according to what Ament told me, used a 9 percent multiplier all the way, when he should have used 8.5 percent for the years 1995-2001. Either way, it’s an awful lot of money.

Short Take

Ament’s axings left out his chief of staff, Tom Mollan, another member of the millionaire club. Of course, if Mollan, Ament’s closest advisor, knew the details of the pension plan, it stands to reason that his boss did as well. Mollan can’t be fired without the finger pointing directly at Ament.

Did Mollan know? “Mollan’s always behind the dirty stuff,” says one supervisor. “Always. My guess is that he put the big pension numbers up in front of everyone.”

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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