CTA Execs Ride The Pension Express
The Chicago Transit Authority has spent nearly $94 million over 15 years on a retirement program that has allowed former CTA executives to start collecting lucrative pensions in their late 40s and early 50s while also getting paychecks from other government jobs, a Better Government Association/Chicago Sun-Times investigation has found.
Nearly 500 former transit executives or their survivors collected a total of more than $7 million from the “CTA supplemental retirement plan” in 2014, the most recent year for which records were available.
Originally intended to supplement CTA executives’ regular pensions with modest additional benefits, the CTA board — then chaired by Carole L. Brown, who’s now the chief financial officer in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration — changed the supplemental plan in 2008 to allow dozens of those employees to retire early.
Seven of the supplemental-plan retirees collected pensions totaling more than $100,000 each in 2014, records show. One of them, David F. Simmons, retired the same month he turned 55 and now has a six-figure job with Metra.
Another, Dennis Anosike, retired at 49 and now makes more than $200,000 a year working for the public bus and rail system in Washington, D.C.
Another 37 people received pension payments in 2014 of between $50,000 and $100,000 apiece. They include Lynn Sapyta, who retired at 53 and went on to work for five years for the College of DuPage before being fired from her $159,000-a-year job along with other school administrators over allegations of financial mismanagement.
Seventy percent of the supplemental retirees — 341 — were paid less than $10,000 each, in line with the plan’s original intent of providing them with modest payments on top of their regular CTA pensions. Most of their pension income came from the Retirement Plan for CTA
Employees, the main pension fund for transit workers, into which the CTA has paid nearly $1.8 billion over 15 years.
To retire early under the changes made to the supplemental plan in 2008, CTA executives had to pay varying sums out of their own pockets to buy years of service and, in many cases, to “bridge” their years of service from other government jobs, records show.
But their contributions were small compared to what the publicly funded transit agency has paid toward their pensions and those of other senior-level staff. Between the start of 2000 and the end of 2014, CTA contributions to the supplemental plan totaled $93.8 million, according to the agency’s financial statements.
During that time, the cost of an L ride has risen from $1.50 to $2.25 and bus fare has gone up from $1.50 to $2.
The top-paid supplemental pensioners include:
- Simmons, a former CTA capital budget director, who paid a total of $27,652 to buy two additional years of CTA service and to have the five years he worked in state government included in his total service time.
Since his February 2010 retirement from the CTA as he was turning 55, Simmons has gotten pension payments totaling more than 20 times that amount — $562,543 as of last summer, records show.
Like many other early CTA retirees, Simmons also is getting $25,000 of CTA-paid “supplemental executive life insurance.”
After leaving the CTA, he went to work for Metra, where he makes $112,014 a year as the government-funded commuter rail agency’s director of grant administration.
“I had been eligible to retire from CTA with full pension since 2004, upon achieving 25 years of service,” including state of Illinois bridge-of-service credit, says Simmons, who turns 61 this month and gets a yearly CTA pension of $103,854. “I chose to retire in 2010 because CTA offered the buyout and it made economic sense to take it. I feel that I have availed myself of benefits legitimately offered to a broad class of eligible CTA employees.”
- Anosike, a former CTA chief financial officer, who helped design the early-retirement program. After the CTA board approved it, he paid $96,853 to buy six years of service and to be allowed to include the nearly nine years he worked for the city of Chicago in his total CTA service time. That allowed him to retire in March 2009 at 49.
Since then, Anosike has collected a total of $668,230 as of last summer — seven times the amount he paid into the supplemental plan. His yearly pension is $105,510.
He also elected to get CTA-subsidized health insurance coverage for life through the plan. In all, 41 supplemental retirees get that benefit.
Anosike is also paying for another benefit, which would see his spouse get two-thirds of his pension if he dies before she does. If she dies before he does, his pension would rise to $116,162 a year.
Now 56, Anosike makes $215,000 a year as the chief financial officer for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which also gives him a $3,000-a-month housing allowance. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
- Sapyta, a former CTA comptroller, who paid $52,489 to buy six years of service, which allowed her to retire in July 2010 at 53 with an annual pension of $92,712. She’d collected $463,561 in pension benefits as of last summer — nearly nine times what she paid in.
After retiring, Sapyta, now 59, became assistant vice president and controller at the College of DuPage, a $159,032-a-year job she lost in September when college trustees fired her, alleging financial mismanagement by her, another top administrator and the college’s president. Sapyta denies the allegations and is suing the college for wrongful termination.
She says she “worked a little over 20 years with the CTA and opted to take advantage of the voluntary-termination program,” which she says she understood would “achieve cost savings” for the agency.
- Ruben E. Madrigal, the CTA’s former vice president of technology, who paid $34,080 to buy six years of CTA service. He retired in August 2010 at 51 with a yearly pension of $82,517.
He had collected $405,709 in pension payments as of last summer — nearly 12 times what he paid in.
Madrigal, 57, is now a $122,856-a-year deputy director of the city of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
- Alison Perona, 57, who paid $135,572 to buy six years of service and include the nearly 18 years she spent working for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office in her total CTA service time.
Perona — who, as inspector general, served as the transit agency’s in-house watchdog against waste, corruption and fraud — retired in April 2009 at 50 with a pension of $106,756 a year. As of last summer, she had been paid $667,223 by the supplemental plan.
Between March 2010 and January 2012, Perona worked for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, where her final salary was $102,372. In May 2012, she became inspector general of the Chicago Park District under a contract that paid her $140,000 a year. She left that job last May.
Like Sapyta, Perona says she was was told her early retirement would help the CTA save money in the long term.
- Patricia L. Taylor, the CTA’s former vice president of facilities, maintenance, capital construction and engineering, who paid $139,354 to buy six service years and to include the nearly 17 years she spent working for the city of Chicago’s budget and law departments in her total CTA service time.
Taylor retired in June 2009 with a yearly pension of $81,908. The same month, she became chief facilities officer for the Chicago Public Schools, a job that was paying her $165,000 a year when she left it last May.
“I did take early retirement, but I had put in many, many years in city government to earn my pension,” says Taylor, who had collected a total of $498,276 from her CTA pension as of last summer.
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Created by state law in 1947, the supplemental plan was set up to reward long-serving senior-level retirees by giving them modest extra pensions, at no cost to them, in addition to their regular CTA pensions, into which they paid a portion of their salaries.
In January 2008, though, state legislators banned future CTA hires from getting the extra-pension perk as part of a massive transit bailout bill that stopped the then-financially failing CTA, Metra and Pace suburban bus system from imposing fare hikes and service cuts.
The law raised sales taxes by one-quarter of one percentage point in Cook County and half of one percentage point in the collar counties. It also increased real estate transfer taxes within Chicago by 40 percent to bankroll a borrowing deal that pumped nearly $2 billion into the Retirement Fund for CTA Employees and a newly created CTA retiree health-care trust.
Bus drivers, train operators and other CTA employees had to double their contributions into the pension fund from 3 percent to 6 percent under the new law. They’re now paying in about 10 percent of their salaries, according to the Illinois auditor general's office — contributions that have made the fund one of the city’s healthiest pension funds, with a funding ratio of 58 percent.
The supplemental plan relies heavily on CTA contributions to make payouts to its retirees, records show.
“How this was ladled on top of the regular CTA pension is something that defies obvious public benefit,” says Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a non-partisan government research organization. “There is very little justification for why any government worker should be getting a supplement on top of what regular employees get. This comes at a very large cost.”
The CTA board added the “voluntary-termination employment program” to the supplemental plan in November 2008 — a move that then-CTA President Ron Huberman’s staff said would save the CTA an estimated $3.6 million a year by eliminating some senior-level jobs and filling others with lower-paid employees.
CTA board members unanimously approved the program on Nov. 13, 2008, after a brief discussion led by then-board chairman Brown, now Emanuel’s top financial official at City Hall, according to a transcript of the board’s meeting.
“I just want to be clear we are, by doing this voluntary termination, there could be a level of senior employees who elects to take an early [retirement] and that, those positions, we are expected, for those people who did that, would be replaced by lower-cost employees, and doing that would save us probably $3.6 million annually?” Brown asked.
“Or $90 million over 25 years, correct,” Anosike replied.
In all, 69 CTA execs agreed to participate in the early-retirement program. Not all are drawing benefits, though.
Huberman, for example, "has not yet met all of the requirements of the supplemental plan to initiate a pension payment," according to the CTA's legal department. Huberman has yet to make "the necessary payments to be eligible," Mayberry says.
Theresa Mintle, a former Emanuel chief of staff who previously worked as the CTA board’s chief of staff and a CTA government-relations official, also hasn't made the required payments, Mayberry says. According to CTA lawyers, "her right to receive a benefit has been terminated," but they provided no details.
Both Huberman, a onetime chief of staff and schools CEO for former Mayor Richard M. Daley, and Mintle, a cousin of Daley, declined to discuss their payments into the plan.
Other former CTA execs made all of their contributions but won’t be able to begin drawing benefits from the plan until they are in their 60s because they don’t have enough years of service.
In between, he worked in Washington for the U.S. Department of Transportation while getting $754,762 in pension payouts — more than triple the $244,853 he paid into the supplemental plan to buy six years of CTA service and to include the nearly 15 years he spent in other government jobs in his total service time.
Carter’s combined income reached as high as $283,679 a year — the sum of his $146,450 federal salary and $137,229-a-year CTA pension. Because he accepted Emanuel’s offer to return to the CTA as its $235,000-a-year boss, Carter has to temporarily forgo his pension because he is once again a CTA employee. He will be able to start collecting it again when he leaves the agency.
Simmons, Anosike, Sapyta and others didn’t withdraw their contributions to the CTA’s regular pension fund. That means they’ll start drawing benefits from that fund when they turn 65 — the normal retirement age for CTA employees.
That won’t be a windfall for the employees, though. “When they reach the age of 65, they will begin to receive their regular benefit payments from the Retirement Plan for CTA Employees, and the supplemental benefit will be reduced by the same amount,” Mayberry says.
CTA officials say participants in the early-retirement program aren’t eligible for annual cost-of-living increases that are a staple of other government pension plans.
In 2014, the transit agency contributed $4.1 million to the supplemental plan and paid a total of nearly $7.3 million to 490 retirees.
Also in 2014, the CTA reported spending an additional $802,000 on health insurance-related costs for Anosike, the 40 other supplemental-plan retirees with health coverage and 15 CTA board retirees who also have CTA-subsidized coverage.
Mayberry says that figure is “not what the CTA actually” paid for their health care but is an actuarial estimate of expected spending that the agency “is required to include in our financial statements. . . . As a matter of policy, CTA does not disclose actual health-care costs.”