Newsday
July 2, 2010

Police, Firefighter Unions Target ‘Pension Roulette’

‘Guarantee’ Bill Moves in Albany

By MARK TOOR and ARI PAUL

Det. Christopher Perino testified that he never interrogated murder suspect Erik Crespo. But Mr. Crespo had recorded the 75-minute interrogation on his MP-3 player. Detective Perino said he had a memory lapse in the two years that had passed between his contact with Mr. Crespo and his testimony. But a Bronx judge saw it differently and convicted him of perjury.

After 22 years in the NYPD, the conviction last year cost Detective Perino his job, his pension, his Variable Supplements Fund benefits and his health coverage. “The guy paid over a $2 million fine,” said Michael J. Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, referring to those losses.

Can Lose Everything

Detective Perino lost at what officers grimly refer to as “pension roulette,” Mr. Palladino said in an interview last week. New York police officers and firefighters become eligible for a full pension after 20 years, but as long as they remain on the job they are not guaranteed to get it. It’s rare, but officers and firefighters have been fired for administrative violations, criminal convictions or failing drug tests after 20 years and walked away with nothing.

Now, the State Senate has voted to end the roulette game. The Senate passed a bill June 22 that would guarantee the pensions of New York City police officers and firefighters who serve 20 years or more. A companion Assembly bill sponsored by Peter J. Abbate Jr. was still in the Rules Committee but may come up for a vote this week.

The bill has been offered for several years, said Senate staff member Barbara O’Neill, but previous versions would have guaranteed partial pensions after five-year vesting. The change to 20 years was probably why the city sent Albany a home-rule message supporting the bill, she said.

A memo accompanying the Senate bill, which was introduced by Diane Savino, chair of the Civil Service and Pension Committee, said, “It is totally violative of the principle and concept of pensions to deny to a member and his family his retirement benefits for which he has expended many years of service and, in the New York City Police and Fire Pension Funds, contributed up to 7 percent of his total earnings.

‘Dismissal Sufficient Punishment’

“The member is being sufficiently punished for his possible departmental violation by being dismissed from his position,” the memo continues. “There is no need to become so punitive as to then also punish his family by not allowing them to benefit from his pension upon which they depended.”

“It’s cruel and unusual punishment,” Uniformed Fire Officers Association Sergeant-At-Arms Richard Alles agreed. “You not only punish the member, but you also destroy a family.”

The problem has come up for Fire Department members who tested positive for drugs and were terminated by the department, he said. Firefighter John Schroeder tested positive for cocaine in 2004, though he denied using it while admitting to drinking heavily to alleviate stress and mental suffering as a result of responding to 9/11. Mr. Schroeder had tried to convince the department to let him retire so he could keep his pension and health benefits, a battle he lost. His lawyer said at the time, “Why isn’t it enough that he gives up his job? Why isn’t that enough of a penalty?”

Guaranteed for State Counterparts

Mr. Palladino said one reason for the change is equity: the Policemen’s and Firemen’s Retirement System, which serves most of the rest of the state, guarantees its members’ pensions. And the generally less-generous pension tier that last summer went into effect for new hires, Tier 3, guarantees pensions, although Tier 2, which covers most of the department, does not. With current and future hiring, there may be more than 1,500 less-senior Police Officers with guaranteed pensions by the end of the year, Mr. Palladino said.

Currently, he said, many officers retire at 20 years because they don’t want some unforeseeable event to jeopardize their pensions. A pension guarantee would help the NYPD and FDNY retain experienced men and women, the DEA leader contended.

Finally, Mr. Palladino said, it is not fair to wipe out an officer’s or firefighter’s entire career based on one event. “For 20 years, they held up their end of the bargain,” he said.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said: “This legislation seeks fair treatment for New York City police officers simply by asking for the same pension guaranty enjoyed by everyone in government, including our state legislators. It’s a common-sense, no-cost piece of legislation that will benefit the city by encouraging highly experienced police officers to stay on the job longer.”

Mr. Alles said that the bill would bring firefighters and police officers in line with Members of Congress and the City Council who have lost their positions after being convicted of crimes but are still able to collect pensions.

No Increase in Costs

“Why should police officers and firefighters be treated any differently?” he said.

Mr. Alles and Mr. Palladino agreed that a pension guarantee wouldn’t increase costs to taxpayers. “They’ve already paid into their pension,” Mr. Alles said of his veteran members. “They’re entitled to it.”

Ironically, once a pension is awarded it can’t be revoked for any reason. Two former Detectives, Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, were convicted in 2006, years after they had retired, of committing eight murders for the Lucchese crime family. They were sentenced to life plus 100 years and life plus 80 years, respectively. They are still getting their pension checks.