Arpaio may be bending state rules - East Valley Tribune: News

Arpaio may be bending state rules

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Posted: Saturday, March 22, 2008 8:42 pm | Updated: 8:56 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is using a loophole in state retirement rules to keep his most loyal deputies on the payroll after they've retired and accepted lucrative pensions and bonuses.

GRAPHIC: Retired deputies on the payroll

In just the past year, Arpaio has rehired four top-level chiefs into civilian jobs. The four received retirement bonuses that paid them nearly $300,000 to more than $500,000 apiece.

The sheriff says the men were the most qualified for the jobs. But critics say Arpaio, who is running for re-election, is keeping on key people who have helped him in previous campaigns.

Law enforcement personnel are included in a state program called Deferred Retirement Option Plan, a retirement alternative commonly known as DROP. The program was started to encourage officers to stay on the job even beyond the 20-year mark.

Once an officer enters DROP, he or she can stay in the program for up to five years. During their last five years, the money they would have received from their pension is socked away into an account earning up to 8.5 percent interest. After they take that money as a one-time bonus, they must leave the department as a sworn officer. The law does not bar them from returning to a civilian job.

But that's a loophole other Valley police chiefs say they are wary of using because it sidesteps the intent of state retirement law and can cause morale problems within police agencies because younger employees can't move up.

Over the 18 months, four of Arpaio's most experienced chiefs were forced to leave after taking the DROP bonus. In the past, other top deputies have become so-called double dippers - retiring and taking a pension and then rehired by MCSO - but these four did so under the lucrative DROP program and were hired into civilian positions.

According to state and county records Jesse Locksa got $576,000 in the one-time payment, Larry Black received $386,000, Tim Overton was paid $445,000, and Rollie Seebert got $270,000. With the exception of Seebert, all had entered DROP in 2002 and stayed the full five years. Seebert entered Jan. 1, 2003 and left Nov. 1, 2006.

Each was earning more than $100,000 per year when they retired and now collect pensions as high as $90,000 per year.

Each was hired back almost immediately in a civilian administrative job. Black and Locksa started their new jobs the same day they retired. Seebert retired the day after Thanksgiving 2006 and was back at work on the following Monday.

The positions are titled "operations manager" and pay $70,000 to $80,000, according to information provided by the county finance department and the sheriff's office.

Combined with their pensions, the former deputies maintain annual incomes well over $100,000.

None of the four would talk to the Tribune, according to Capt. Paul Chagolla, the sheriff's spokesman.

Arpaio said the four deputies - who have contributed cash to the sheriff's past political campaigns and collected thousands of signatures needed to get him on the ballot - were the most experienced and best qualified applicants for the civilian jobs.

"It's their right to put in for any job opening and I think I'm getting these guys, with all that experience, at bargain prices," Arpaio said. "I can't think of anyone more qualified for these jobs."

Chagolla said the jobs were advertised for five days. But they attracted few applicants, he said, despite their high pay.

Chagolla could not say where the jobs were listed. And he wouldn't say who else put in for them.

Chagolla also wouldn't say who held the civilian posts before the four former deputies. Because the former employees no longer work for the government, the department is not required to reveal their names, he said.

Arpaio did say the four former deputies now have varying responsibilities as "operations managers." Seebert and Overton were hired to train younger deputies in various duties while Locksa was put in charge of communications, Arpaio said.

He was less forthcoming when it came to Black, his former chief of enforcement. "It has to do with homeland security and that's all I'm going to say about that," Arpaio said.

In the past, all four had directed critical functions of the sheriff's department, Arpaio said, adding they were familiar with many aspects of the department from managing the jails to overseeing the sheriff's threat squad.

In addition to their law enforcement duties, the four also demonstrated their political dedication to Arpaio over the years. A review of the sheriff's campaign finance records show they were among the most active volunteers in Arpaio's political machine. Together, the four deputies and their family members have contributed thousands of dollars to Arpaio's political coffers, some as far back as the early 1990s.

Perhaps more importantly, Locksa, Seebert and Overton were key to getting Arpaio's name on the ballot for re-election in 2004. They worked political functions, approached people on the street and at other public places to round up thousands of signatures from registered voters for nominating petitions, required before any candidate can be on a ballot.

Locksa alone collected nearly 1,100 signatures, according to a review of petition signature sheets at the Maricopa County Recorder's office.

Chuck Coughlin, a GOP consultant, called that an "astounding" accomplishment that would have taken an incredible amount of time and energy.

"It certainly shows his dedication," Coughlin said.

By collecting the signatures, Arpaio's deputies saved the campaign money, Coughlin said. Professional signature gatherers are paid about $1.50 to $2 per name.

The recorder's office doesn't keep signature petitions beyond five years, so records for previous election campaigns weren't available.

Other Valley police chiefs say they are very cautious about rehiring former sworn officers.

A former Phoenix police Chief left the Phoenix department through the DROP program and was rehired under the newly created title of public safety manager, a civilian post that essentially functions as the chief.

But Chandler police Chief Sherry Kiyler said her department recently decided against bringing back officers once they've taken their DROP bonus.

She said the officers know the deal when the they get in to DROP - once they get paid they have to leave. It was a decision that both the department and the city agreed on.

"We didn't want people coming back after DROP, that wasn't its intent," she said.

She said she would consider rehiring officers with unique talents, but that issue hasn't come up.

Mesa police Chief George Gascón doesn't rule out rehiring officers after they get their DROP payment, but he's never done it since he's been in Mesa, more than two years. He said he worries about the negative effect it could have on the department.

"I'd be concerned about stagnation within the organization," he said.

If employees in the department feel there's no room to advance it could demoralize them - something no police department wants, he said.

Gascón said he's not aware of any officers attempting to come back after taking their DROP payment.

Members of the Maricopa County Deputies Association declined to speak about Arpaio's hiring practices or any other issue for fear of reprisal by the sheriff, said Dale Norris, an attorney who represents the deputies union.

But other police union representatives in the Valley are particularly critical of the sheriff, saying he has long used political loyalty as a litmus test for his deputies.

"This is all about keeping his people in place," said officer Joe McAuliffe, treasurer of the Chandler Law Enforcement Association, the city's police union.

McAuliffe pointed to the mass transfer of more than 300 sheriff's officers who supported Arpaio's political opponent - former Mesa police Cmdr. Dan Saban - soon after the 2004 election.

"It's not like he hasn't done this before," McAuliffe said.

Of the officers transferred, 140 were sworn deputies while the rest were jail guards. Arpaio has said those employees' political allegiances had nothing to do with the move. However, such large-scale reassignments are nearly unprecedented in law enforcement, the Tribune reported as part of an investigation into the shake-up.

That is the type of action by the sheriff's department that keeps members of the deputies union from speaking publicly, Norris noted.

Norris doesn't see anything wrong with hiring back retired deputies, but said it should be based on qualifications and merit.

"If they are getting paid back for their work politically then that's wrong," he said.

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