December 21, 2012 10:50 AM
Municipal Attorney Could Lose Lucrative Taxpayer-Funded Pension
After BGA raises questions about his eligibility, agency decides to strip away his benefits.
By Andrew Schroedter/BGA
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A politically connected south suburban attorney who stood to benefit from a questionable and potentially lucrative pension sweetener now could end up with no public-sector pension at all.
Dennis Gianopolus, a top municipal attorney for Calumet City and Chicago Heights, was in line to collect a six-figure pension when he hit retirement age.
But prompted by questions from the Better Government Association, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (IMRF) opened an investigation to determine if Gianopolus should qualify for a taxpayer-subsidized benefit, especially one topping an estimated $145,000 a year.
IMRF pensions are typically reserved for municipal employees or elected officials who work at least 600 hours a year – the IMRF says Gianopolus doesn’t meet either criteria. He isn’t full-time – he’s considered an outside contractor – and his positions with both Calumet City and Chicago Heights don’t "meet the 600 hour standard," according to the fund. Besides, he maintains a private law practice in Lansing. Calumet City officials have argued that Gianopolus is an "officer" and a salaried employee and therefore entitled to a pension.
But IMRF didn’t agree.
"You will not be entitled to a pension based upon your service with Calumet City or Chicago Heights," IMRF General Counsel Kathy O’Brien told Gianopolus in an Oct. 23 letter, obtained by the BGA under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Gianopolus told the BGA this week that he had no comment.
However, IMRF spokeswoman Linda Horrell says Gianopolus has formally appealed the ruling.
A hearing before the fund’s Benefit Review Committee hasn’t yet been scheduled. The committee will recommend that the decision by IMRF staff either be affirmed or reversed; the pension fund’s Board of Trustees will then vote on the matter, Horrell says.
If the board rules against him, Gianopolus can file an action for administrative review in circuit court, she adds.
The BGA previously reported that Calumet City had quietly adopted a pension sweetener that could have boosted Gianopolus’ retirement benefits by a staggering $2 million – or more – during his lifetime. Calumet City officials insisted the measure was part of an honest effort to lower upfront attorney costs, and wasn’t intended to serve as a favor for Gianopolus, a friend and political supporter of Calumet City Mayor Michelle Markiewicz Qualkinbush.
Gianopolus became Calumet City’s city prosecutor in 2001 and corporation counsel in 2003. At the time, the prosecutor job was a salaried employee position that made him eligible for an IMRF pension. And Gianopolus was classified as an "independent contractor" for the corporation counsel post, which carried an hourly salary and no pension.
But in 2010, Qualkinbush and the City Council made the corporation counsel job a salaried position that paid $240,000 annually, while officials reclassified the city prosecutor as an independent contractor making about the same rate of pay as before: roughly $25,000 a year.
This translated into a potential windfall for the 53-year-old Gianopolus, who also serves as Chicago Heights’ city prosecutor, which pays about $24,000 a year. A person’s earnings are an important factor in determining his or her pension – the more someone earns, the higher their pension. Gianopolus’ benefit would’ve been based on both his Calumet City and Chicago Heights pay.
Thanks to the sweetener, if Gianopolus worked until age 65, his starting IMRF benefit would have been more than $145,000, assuming his pay from both suburbs didn’t change. Over 20 years that total retirement benefit would’ve been more than $2.9 million, according to an analysis by the BGA and IMRF.
But now, if the decision by IMRF stands, Gianopolus won’t collect anything at all, though he likely would be reimbursed for the financial contributions he’s already made to the fund. Gianopolus has been contributing a portion of his earnings to IMRF, the current rate is 4.5 percent of his gross pay, or about $11,800 a year. But taxpayers are on the hook for a lion’s share of the costs, as municipal governments in Calumet City and Chicago Heights this year chipped in a total of about $30,000 on the attorney’s behalf.
Calumet City’s Qualkinbush didn’t return messages. Chicago Heights Mayor David Gonzalez also couldn’t be reached.
One of the BGA’s signature issues has been exposing pension abuses and irregularities in an attempt to make government more efficient, save taxpayers money and thwart inappropriate political influence.
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter. He can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 821-9035.