City Paper is not for tourists
File this one under “nice work if you can get it.”
More than two dozen retired police officers who were rehired by the District, including the chief of the police agency that protects government buildings, have been improperly paid both a full pension and full salary for several years even though the D.C. Code prohibits that, according to city documents and interviews with officials.
And just before city officials started docking their salaries in order to end the overpayments, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier helped get three of those double dipping officers giant raises—$47,000 in one case, Lanier’s emails and city records show.
Individual pensions don’t have to be disclosed to the public, so it’s impossible to figure the exact amount of money the District overpaid. But estimates based on pension formulas (which are sometimes as high as 80 percent of a cop’s final salary, plus yearly cost of living increases) indicate that the total cost is likely in the millions; the average pension payment to retired cops and firefighters is about $57,000 a year, but officers who retired at high ranks after decades of service can make more. City records show the vast majority of the double dipping started under former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration, but one case dates to at least 2005. District officials say they have no intention of trying to recoup any of the money.
But this isn’t a story of cops trying to milk the system, say some of the double-dipping officers. They say a dysfunctional city government made promises it can’t keep, and is now unfairly slashing their pay.
The city started looking into the situation this summer, when Department of Human Resources Director Shawn Stokes says the mayor’s office asked her what would happen if a police officer retired and was rehired by the city. Could they keep their pension and receive a full salary? The newly employed Stokes asked her staff to find out. The answer: no.
For retired cops, firefighters, and teachers who return to the city workforce, city law requires that their salaries be offset by their pensions. There are exceptions for retirees who return to work as temporary police officers or as public school security officers.
Stokes says she asked her staff to identify whether any retired, then rehired, employees were double dipping improperly. So far, her staff has identified 25 retired MPD officers who have come back to work for the city and drawn both a full salary and a full pension. Stokes says the city’s records don’t make it easy to identify double dippers: “It could be more.”
The task of finding the double-dipping retired cops fell to DCHR’s general counsel, Charles Tucker. He says some were acting like they’d been expecting to be caught, like a “person selling illegal fireworks.”
“None of the affected employees seemed shocked,” Tucker says.
DCHR sent out letters to the employees this fall telling them the gravy train would end on Nov. 20.
The list of retired cops who have been double dipping includes Lou Cannon, chief of the D.C. Protective Services Police Department, and several of his deputies.
Cannon says he and his staff have been given a raw deal. He says that he when he was recruited to his current position in 2008, he never tried to hide the fact that he was receiving a city pension. He says he asked city officials whether he could keep the pension and get his full salary, which is currently $110,000 a year. He says the same goes for several retired MPD cops who work for him, whose salaries range from $45,000 to $98,000.
“We asked. We were told we were okay,” Cannon says. “We’re not the bad guys in this.”
(Fun sidenote: President Barack Obama appointed Cannon last year to the Federal Salary Council, which advises the president on salary issues for federal employees.)
Cannon won’t say which city officials gave him the erroneous information, but says he provided the names to DCHR. Tucker says that’s not true: “Anytime I press someone, no one was able to say who.”
Cannon also declined to say how much his pension is, other than to say his recent pay cut has been “substantial.” He retired from MPD in 1995 after 22 years on the force. He says he has no plans to leave city government, and says he and his staff are exploring options to get the city to reverse its decision.
Emails obtained by Washington City Paper show Cannon’s staffers expected Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. to propose emergency legislation that would have delayed the Nov. 20 cutoff. A Wilson Building source confirmed that Thomas was considering the legislation. But Thomas, whose house was recently raided by federal agents, so far hasn’t proposed anything, apparently busy with other matters.
At MPD, though, Lanier didn’t wait for the council to help three of her double dipping employees: She got them huge raises days before the cutoff. Those raises may have helped offset the amount their salaries were cut by.
Commander Daniel Hickson, who oversees the MPD’s First District, saw his pay jump from $129,999 to $177,000. Lieutenant Jacob Major’s salary went from $100,000 to $136,050. And Bill Sarvis, a medical services manager who has only been on the job since March, had his salary go from $125,000 to $152,686. For Hickson and Major, their salaries now far eclipse what others of similar ranks are making. Hickson and Sarvis didn’t respond to LL’s attempts to contact them, and Major couldn’t be reached.
(Sarvis, by the way, was an assistant police chief in the ’90s. He won a $100,000 settlement with the city in 1999 after he was demoted to a captain. The city said he was demoted for buying stolen property from a corrupt ATF employee. Sarvis said he was punished for planning to reveal wrongdoing by then-Police Chief Larry Soulsby.)
Lanier is out of the country and did not respond to an email requesting comment. On Monday, Tucker told LL the raises weren’t related to the fact that the three were about to have their salaries slashed; rather, their job performance merited the pay bumps. On Tuesday, Stokes offered a different version of events. “The chief really wanted to keep these seasoned professionals in their positions,” Stokes says.
Emails obtained show Lanier and Stokes discussing “paperwork” related to the three MPD employees on Nov. 15 and 16, days before the Nov. 20 cutoff.
“I would like to get them an answer ASAP,” Lanier wrote on Nov. 16.
Told of the raises that Lanier arranged, Cannon says his department deserves the same treatment. “I think I’m a seasoned professional, and I haven’t gotten anything,” he says.
There are plenty of other city employees who may feel the same way. The perpetually cash-strapped D.C. government had a pay freeze until September. Last week, Mayor Vince Gray ordered a travel freeze and hiring freeze to help cope with “serious financial challenges.” The high salaries paid to some of Gray’s own appointees caused him big problems earlier in the year. Gray notes that his administration ended the double dipping, but says he’s “deferring” to Lanier on the pay raises.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery/graphic by Brooke Hatfield
Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.