November 21, 2015

The Update Desk: Double Dipping

Earlier this week, in my Grains of Salt (v3) post, I talked about the chief law enforcement officer of Onondaga County who, it appeared, had broken a campaign promise to not take both his taxpayer-paid pension and his taxpayer-paid salary.

Gene Conway, the double-dipper, was the Town of Dewitt police chief before being elected Onondaga County sheriff in 2014; before that, he worked in the sheriff's department for over 20 years, which is where he earned the pension that is the subject of the double-dip.

As police chief in Dewitt, he legally collected his pension in addition to his salary. When he ran for sheriff, he told us that he wanted to set an example, and that he would not take take his pension if elected.

As I noted the other day, reporters for the Syracuse Media Group (which includes the Post-Standard and Syracuse.com) discovered that Conway did collect a pension this year, from January to April, and that he received additional pension payments covering April through October after the reporters investigated with the state.

Conway wrote a letter to the Post-Standard in response to the earlier article, trying to explain how he had in fact kept his campaign promise not to take his pension. In the letter he stated
(That) is why I see it as vital to add several major corrections to the stories published on Syracuse.com regarding the allegation that I broke my promise to forgo my pension while sheriff.
Here's one his those "major corrections" from Conway
As a member of the New York State Employees Retirement System, I am guided by the regulations of the Retirement and Social Security Law.  After taking office earlier this year, I notified the system of my intention to suspend my pension benefits, based on my campaign pledge. This was verified by a copy of that correspondence contained in the story.
It is true that he asked for his pension to be suspended, but it had nothing to do with the campaign pledge. His letter stated in part
On or about April 10, 2015 I will reach the limit of $30,000 in earnings. Therefore I am requesting that my pension be suspended at the time it reflects my earned income limit.  
He doesn't point out in the letter to the newspaper his intention to resume his pension again next year, but he did include it in the letter to the retirement system.
I understand and request that my earned benefit will again resume as of January 1, 2016.
We now know that Conway can't have his pension suspended; that opportunity is not available to an elected official (something his opponent, Toby Shelley, seemed to know). But it's not his lack of knowledge on the pension laws that the issue here -- it's his contention that suspending his pension is what he promised during the campaign.

In a live chat facilitated by Syracuse.com back in 2014, the following exchange occurred. In reference to the double dipping Conway was doing at the time, a person asked
If it's wrong then why is it not wrong now and why don't you stop now? 
Conway responded
I currently receive a waiver to collect my pension. That waiver is legal and is actually applied for by the employer, which is the Town. It allows them not to have to pay 25% of my salary to the pension system. I have stated that I will not seek a pension as sheriff for two reasons - because I will be trying to set an example and there would be no savings to the county as I was previously employed there.
This was not the only time Conway vowed that he would not collect both his pension and his salary if elected.  Here's an excerpt from an interview published in the Eagle News Online, in which he was given the opportunity to tell voters about his plans regarding double dipping:
I presently collect a salary from the town of Dewitt as their police chief  I also collect my pension. I would not collect both as sheriff
And there's also this article, again from the Syracuse Media Groups outlets, specifically addressing the pension and salary issue:
Conway said he has already decided he would stop taking his pension if elected sheriff because he did not want it to become a political issue in the campaign. 
He also noted in another conversation with local reporters
I do not want it to be a factor for people in the community. I don't want it to be an issue in the campaign. This job is that important to me. 
And here's one last reference, from an interview with Dan Cummings on Newsmakers, where he was asked (just before the 14-minute mark) whether he would continue to draw the pension or do something else with it:
I've already stated publicly and consistently from the beginning that I will not seek that pension. Dan, straight out I won't take that pension. No double-dipping.
Nowhere do I see -- except in the letter to the editor -- any comment about suspending the pension. All of his statements are about not taking the pension.

Straight out Gene, I don't believe that saying you broke your promise is "misleading, unfair and incorrect" nor do I believe that your statement today "brings clarity to the matter at hand."

Clarity will come when you take yourself out of the retirement system until you fully retire, when you apologize to the Onondaga County community for breaking your repeated, consistent promises to not double-dip.