Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 12:01 am
Pension board travels the nation
Hawaii. Las Vegas. Miami. San Francisco.
Members of the Springfield Police Pension Board have a penchant for traveling, with the tab reaching into the six figures since 2007. State regulators raised concerns two years ago, but the travels haven’t stopped, with as many as four of the board’s five trustees traveling to resort cities to attend the same conference as recently as last May.
When Kevin Barrington and his stepdaughter, Alicia, went to Palm Springs in 2007 to attend a conference for trustees of public pension funds, they didn’t board an airplane.
The elder Barrington, then a Springfield Police Pension Board trustee and city police officer, and his daughter, the board’s clerk, drove to California and back. The conference lasted four days (including a daylong golf tournament that featured a continental breakfast, lunch and “other refreshments”) but the Barringtons were on the road for nine, with the board paying almost $2,000 in mileage at the rate of 48.5 cents per mile. And that was just the beginning.
In the course of their trip, Kevin and Alicia Barrington each collected $531 in per diems and stayed in hotels in Moab, Utah, Winslow, Ariz., and lesser-known towns in Oklahoma and Kansas, all paid for by the pension fund. It isn’t clear why a clerical worker attended a conference designed for trustees with power to manage money, but, all told, the excursion by the Barringtons cost the pension board nearly $5,600.
Former police chief Don Kliment, also a board trustee, made the same journey to the same Palm Springs conference for less money. He arrived on a Sunday afternoon, too late for the golf tournament that began that morning, and left the following Wednesday, incurring nearly $2,500 in hotel bills, airfare and other expenses paid by the pension board.
The Palm Springs trip was the third extended road trip that year for Kevin Barrington, who was paid to drive himself to a Washington, D.C., conference that Kliment also attended in February of 2007. Barrington’s tab reached nearly $2,300; Kliment’s bill came to nearly $1,600. Two weeks after his trip to the nation’s capital, Barrington drove to yet another conference in Sarasota, Fla., while Springfield shivered. The tab for that trip came to nearly $3,500.
Pursuant to board policy, all of the travels were approved by the board, with two trustees required to sign every check. Convicted of several sex offenses in 2009, Barrington is now an inmate who isn’t going anywhere until his scheduled release in 2024. His stepdaughter is also no longer employed by the board. But travel by trustees hasn’t stopped.
Last May, four of the five trustees flew to Honolulu for a weeklong conference, with at least three bringing along spouses or other guests whose airfare wasn’t covered by the fund. Still, the fund’s tab reached nearly $13,400 for airfare, hotel rooms, conference registrations and other expenses. It was the second trip to the tropics for trustees, three of whom went to Honolulu in 2007 for a weeklong conference, with the fund’s tab topping $9,800.
Based on an audit of the board’s books covering the period between 2005 and 2008, the state Department of Insurance raised questions in a report delivered to the board in 2011.
“As a public entity, emphasis should be placed on cost consciousness,” department officials wrote. “The benefits of a conference against its cost need to be carefully weighed. There was no reporting in the (board meeting) minutes on any of the seminars and the value of attending. This is a subject that should be addressed in the board’s travel policy.”
All told, the police pension board has spent nearly $124,000 on travel and conferences since 2007, including almost $35,700 since state regulators raised concerns about travel spending in the spring of 2011. By contrast, trustees for the firefighters pension fund have spent slightly more than $90,000 on travel and conferences since 2007.
A common sense policy
After receiving the critical state report in 2011, the police pension board told regulators that trustees adopted a travel policy in 2008. It’s not clear exactly when the policy was adopted because the board couldn’t locate a signed or dated copy, but travel spending since 2009 has reached nearly $73,000.
Besides Honolulu, destinations for conferences since the policy was adopted include Las Vegas in 2010 and 2011, with three trustees going each time and staying at the Wynn and Caesar’s Palace. Four trustees went to San Francisco in December of 2010. Three flew to Miami in 2011. There were also trips to New Orleans, New York and Los Angeles, with either one or two trustees going each time.
The travel policy for the city’s firefighters pension fund restricts out-of-state travel by trustees, limiting each trustee to one out-of-state conference each year and capping the number of trustees at those conferences at two unless a trustee is a speaker or member of a national committee involved with the conference. There are no such restrictions in the policy adopted by police pension board trustees in 2008.
Conferences, according to the police pension board’s policy, are good things:
“(I)t has been demonstrated that educational experience benefits plan participants by leading to an improvement or maintenance of skills required in the performance of a Trustee’s and/or Fund Employee’s duty. In this regard, it is the policy of the Springfield Pension Fund to encourage all Trustees to attend one or more educational seminars per year. This is not mandatory, but is merely a guideline.”
The policy contains no hard limits on spending:
“Expenses for which reimbursement will be made shall include all reasonable expenses for travel, food and beverages and lodging. The expenses shall be reasonable and proper. It is the intention of the Board of the Springfield Police Pension Fund that the terms ‘reasonable and proper’ be given common sense definitions and shall be judged on a per case basis.”
By contrast, the travel policy for the firefighters pension says that if a trustee drives somewhere instead of flying, the fund will reimburse the cost of coach airfare if flying would have been cheaper. Car rentals under the firefighters policy are reimbursable up to the cost of cab fare between the airport and the official destination. The travel policy for the firefighters pension fund also says that trustees who attend conferences must make a report on the conference to the board. The policy for the police pension board contains no such provision.
Trustees for the police pension board have resisted efforts to install oversight. When the Department of Insurance in 2011 told the board that the city treasurer must sign off on expenditures, the board, after losing in an administrative hearing, sued the state in 2012. The lawsuit is still pending, but city treasurer Jim Langfelder said that he began signing off on the board’s spending in September.
Just what police pension board trustees learned at out-of-state conferences and why so many had to attend the same conferences isn’t clear. Except for William McCarty, the city’s budget director who was recently appointed to the board by Mayor Mike Houston, trustees either could not be reached or declined or ignored interview requests.
Langfelder and McCarty say they don’t endorse paying for mileage instead of airline tickets when flying is cheaper. But they did defend spending for faraway conferences, noting that state law mandates 32 hours of training each year for every trustee. However, they also acknowledged that all of that training can be accomplished within state borders.
“Illinois does not have a great track record when it comes to pensions,” Langfelder offers. “You’re better off going to a national conference.”
McCarty said that trustees have told him that out-of-state conferences have better content than conferences closer to home.
“I asked about the conferences, that’s when they (trustees) started telling me about all the training that’s needed,” McCarty said. “They prefer some over others.”
But Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin, long a critic of the city’s police and fire pension funds, blasted spending on out-of-state conferences. Conferences, he says, are an unnecessary perk handed out to reward trustees who otherwise get no pay.
“It’s outrageous, and it’s an abuse of taxpayer money,” McMenamin said. “Each trustee who signed off on those travel reimbursements should resign. … When there are no checks and balances, people take advantage.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.