The city Police and Fire Pension Board voted Thursday to grant retirement to a police officer who was arrested last month on federal corruption charges, despite the Board of Police Commissioners’ vote to terminate him last week.
Mayor John DeStefano’s office expressed outrage at the retirement approval as well as the board’s decision to give the officer, Lt. Billy White, an annual pension of $91,000.
The debate at the meeting was not about whether or not White should get his pension, but about whether he had technically retired before the police commissioners voted to fire him, said Richard Epstein, pension board trustee and police commissioner.
White, who headed the New Haven Police Department’s narcotics unit and had served 39 years in the department, was arrested with Detective Justen Kasperzyk in March following a months-long federal sting operation.
Pension board members said the meeting became heated toward its end, when the subject of White’s and Kasperzyk’s retirement was raised. The board ultimately approved White’s paperwork for both age-annuity and disability pension after it decided that, according to the union contract, he had retired before he was fired. A vote on Kasperzyk’s request for disability pension was postponed pending further medical evidence.
Epstein said White’s pension was never in doubt, as he had served the necessary time on the force and had proved an injury in the line of duty. Rather, he said, the debate was about at which point an officer’s retirement takes effect: when the paperwork is submitted or when it is approved.
“There is no question that the officers should get the pension,” Epstein said. “What that came down to is, does the Police Commission have the right to terminate the employee, or is it the right of the officers to circumvent that by retiring?”
The police commissioners voted to terminate White last week, following his arrest by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on felony charges of bribery conspiracy and stealing government funds.
At the meeting, the pension board’s legal counsel Carolyn Kone said she upheld the police union’s view that an officer’s retirement goes into effect as soon his or her papers are submitted, before the board verifies it. Epstein — who abstained from voting because White is one of his insurance clients — said the board’s decision was likely based on this point of view.
In contrast, the interpretation by the police commissioners’ counsel was that retirement is not official until the pension board approves it, Epstein said.
“This is much less about specific officers than about the procedures,” he said. “I think this will ultimately lead to a clarification in the next contract, which will be a good thing.”
But the Mayor’s Office said the pension board’s decision is in violation of city law.
“General Order 89-2 states that an officer’s retirement is not official until it is accepted by a pension governing body,” the office said in a statement. “The board’s decision in this case attempts to usurp the city’s authority to terminate White because it claims he was retired effective March 15th and therefore ineligible for termination on April 4.”
New Haven Labor Relations Director Emmet Hibson attended yesterday’s meeting in order to defend the city’s position, but was denied an opportunity to speak by a vote of four to three by the trustees. Hibson could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Pension board trustee Theodore Brooks said that while one aspect of the dispute is contract violations, the real question is whether or not the government should give pensions to employees accused of crimes.
“There’s nothing unique or strange about this meeting other than the notoriety,” Brooks said. “The city, the state, the federal government need to look at how they distribute pensions when a person is caught violating a crime while working.”
Four of the five voting trustees supported White’s age-annuity retirement, and three of the five supported his disability retirement. Epstein said he expects the pension board to discuss Kasperzyk’s pension at its regular meeting next month.