Wednesday, December 14, 2005 | The city’s personnel director testified Tuesday that he was shot down by a city councilman when he objected in 2002 that a special pension benefit for the firefighters union president was not prudent.
Personnel director Rich Snapper told the court he thinks Councilman Jim Madaffer was the official who “did not have a friendly exchange” with him when he raised concerns over the presidential benefit, although he said he did not remember for sure the identity of the councilman.
Snapper’s testimony provides one of the first glimpses into what the City Council knew in 2002 when a controversial pension deal at the heart of the district attorney’s case was in the works.
The Superior Court on Tuesday heard much about the presidential benefit, which allowed firefighters union President Ron Saathoff to combine his union and city salaries in his pension calculations.
The District Attorney’s Office has charged Saathoff and five other former retirement trustees for illegally boosting their own pension checks by approving a deal that relieved the city from making a budget-breaking payment to its retirement plan. Judge Frederic Link will consider whether the criminal conflict-of-interest case warrants a jury trial after pre-trial hearings conclude in January.
Snapper testified under oath that he remembers a male council member asking him “what’s your objection?” to the benefit before arguing with him in the closed-door meeting. The councilman later commanded then human resources director Cathy Lexin, who was also charged by the district attorney, to “just do it.”
He offered up Madaffer’s name after Link asked him to venture his best guess as to which council member argued with him. A spokeswoman for Madaffer said he declined to comment because the city’s pension dealings are still under investigation.
The defendants in the district attorney’s case are Saathoff, Lexin, former Assistant Auditor Terri Webster, former Treasurer Mary Vattimo, city management analyst Sharon Wilkinson and Municipal Employees Association Vice President John Torres.
Snapper said he had concerns over the tax implications of the presidential benefit and whether the concept was sound public policy. He noted during his testimony Monday that he was upset that he didn’t find out about the benefit until he showed up to the council’s private discussions of the labor talks.
“[Former Auditor Ed] Ryan and I asked what in the world were they thinking with this proposal,” Snapper said.
The personnel director said he had been concerned about whether the presidential benefit was legal. Until 2002, the presidential benefit existed only for the presidents of the unions representing white-collar workers and rank-and-file police officers.
Snapper said then-Assistant City Attorney Les Girard told him that he would be granted indemnity, or guaranteed legal defense on the city’s dime if litigation should ever arise from the presidential benefit. Two years later Girard delivered a memo stating he was indemnified, Snapper said.
Others also testified Tuesday about Saathoff’s presidential benefit. Fire Capt. Billy Davis corroborated earlier testimony from another firefighter that the two of them had complained to the city’s Ethics Commission about benefit.
“When I engage someone to negotiate for me, the negotiated outcomes should be equal for both of us,” Davis said Tuesday. His letter argues that Saathoff was bought off by the city to prevent him from taking advantage of a new labor negotiating law that was advantageous to public employee unions.
Mike McGhee, a labor relations officer who reported to Lexin in 2002, testified that he knew the pension benefits granted that year were contingent on the retirement board’s approval of the underfunding plan known as Manager’s Proposal 2.
McGhee was assigned to work on negotiations with the firefighters and police officer union in 2002. Before working in the city’s Labor Relations Office, McGhee was Saathoff’s executive assistant at the firefighters union and he also served as the police union’s chief of staff.
The prosecution referred McGhee to an e-mail he sent that stated, “I’m sure Ron is well aware of the contingent nature of the benefits.” McGhee testified that he never believed any of the benefits, including Saathoff’s, were not contingent on the retirement board’s approval of Manager’s Proposal 2.
Defense attorneys tried to chip away at both Davis and McGhee, who were called to testify by prosecutor Stephen Robinson. Jerry Coughlan, the attorney representing Saathoff, grilled Davis on why the letter to Ethics Commission was signed by him and not co-author Capt. Dennis Pascale.
Coughlan implied that Pascale was thinking about challenging Saathoff for union president as he did several years earlier and was using the complaint as political gain.
He also challenged McGhee over his assumption that the presidential benefit was contingent on the pension board’s passage of Manager’s Proposal 2. By the time Coughlan was busy throwing nuanced hand grenades into McGhee’s reasoning, the labor negotiator backed off his assertion that Manager’s Proposal 2 and the presidential benefit were linked.
“I made the assumption that it was part of the benefits,” said McGhee, the city’s current labor relations manager. “Again, I don’t recall seeing it in the package of benefits.”
Former Deputy City Attorney Elmer Heap is expected to testify Wednesday.
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