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Thursday, April 4, 2019 02:32 pm

One day teaching worth a lifetime of benefits

Supreme Court rules lobbyist deserves pension

A retired lobbyist for a teacher’s union deserves a state pension, earned by virtue of one day’s work as a substitute teacher, under an Illinois State Supreme Court ruling issued today.

David Piccioli, a lobbyist for the Illinois Federation of Teachers from 1997 until 2012, when he retired, obtained a substitute teaching certificate in December, 2006. The following month, Piccioli worked for one day as a substitute teacher in Springfield School District 186. And that, the state’s highest court ruled, was enough to earn him a pension for life under state law then in place.

Overturning Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Ryan Cadagin, the Supreme Court in a 4-3 decision ruled that Piccioli was entitled to a pension on the grounds that the state constitution doesn’t allow pension benefits, once granted, to be diminished. Piccioli had sued Teachers Retirement System, which administers pensions for educators, after TRS refused to grant him pension benefits.

One month after Piccioli worked as a substitute, a state law took effect that granted pension benefits to employees of teachers unions if they were certified as a teacher before the law took effect, applied for a TRS pension within six months of the law taking effect and paid into the TRS system contributions for prior union employment. In Piccioli's case, the payment to TRS totaled slightly more than $192,000, which was refunded after TRS declined to grant him a pension.

“It is undisputed that plaintiff complied with all of the statutory requirements for obtaining service credit in the TRS for his union service prior to becoming a certified teacher,” Chief Justice Anne Burke wrote in the high court’s opinion.

In 2011, the Chicago Tribune published a story and an editorial critical of the law that enabled Piccioli to qualify for a TRS pension after spending just one day in a classroom. Shortly thereafter, the legislature repealed the law.

Too late, the Supreme Court ruled.

“Plaintiff followed everything the law required in order to establish his eligibility to purchase TRS credit for his past union service,” the court ruled. “While nothing prevented the legislature from eliminating this benefit for future employees, there is no legal justification for reducing or eliminating the pension benefits plaintiff was awarded pursuant to the 2007 amendment (to state law).”

Three justices dissented, with Justice Mary Jane Theis painting a picture of lobbyists writing the rules in a dissent joined by justices Rita Garman and Robert Thomas that criticized the majority for not being explicit in how Piccioli’s pension benefits came into being.

“As Piccioli’s attorney admitted at oral argument, the optics created by the facts of this case are not great,” Theis wrote. “The majority’s background, however, whitewashes those facts.”

In her dissent, Theis writes that an unnamed House Democratic staffer, shortly after the 2006 election, asked Steven Preckwinkle, then director of political activities for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, if the union would be interested in amending a statute governing teacher pensions. The IFT president was concerned about costs to taxpayers and the potential for “damaging exposure” if the union supported the change, Theis wrote. Nonetheless, the union backed the proposal, according to Theis’ dissent.

During a deposition, Theis wrote, Preckwinkle said he couldn’t recall if anyone at IFT helped write language that allowed Piccioli, who worked for House Democrats for a decade before starting work as an IFT lobbyist, to qualify for a state pension for one day’s work as a substitute teacher. However, Nick Yelverton, the IFT’s legislative director, sent an email, prior to the law being passed, to a lawyer for the Legislative Reference Bureau, an arm of the state General Assembly that drafts legislation, titled “1st one is wrong,” Theis noted. Attached to the email, Theis wrote, was a document titled “IFT-TRS draft lang 10-18-06.”

The attached documents included a section of state law governing teacher pensions and an underlined paragraph. “The paragraph stated that teacher organization employees could establish TRS service credit for their prior union work if they became certified as teachers before the legislation went into effect and paid contributions required for such credit,” Theis wrote. “One minute later, Yelverton sent an email to Preckwinkle with the subject ‘Language to LRB.’ That email included the same attachment as the email to the LRB attorney.”

Three weeks later, Preckwinkle sent an email to IFT employees who weren’t enrolled in public pension systems, telling them that he had scheduled two meetings to discuss rights to enroll in the TRS pension system. In the email, Preckwinkle wrote that current pension rights as well as “related pending legislation” up for discussion in the coming veto session would be addressed. “Persons who should attend one of these meetings are those with a bachelor’s degree (or higher) or the interest in obtaining one while employed by the IFT,” Preckwinkle wrote, putting the sentence in italics.

Six days after Preckwinkle sent his email, the House extended the deadline to act on the bill that ultimately granted Piccioli his right to collect a public pension and referred the matter to the House Personnel and Pensions Committee, which struck entirely the language in the bill as written and replaced it with language that included the substance of a draft written by IFT that gave union employees the right to collect a public pension for one day of working as a substitute teacher, according to Theis’ dissent. After the House and Senate passed the bill, Preckwinkle sent another email to IFT staff, notifying them that the bill was on the governor’s desk. “I will do what I can to slow down the bill signing process to allow for everyone who wishes to participate in the TRS provisions the opportunity to do so,” Preckwinkle wrote.

Nine days after the General Assembly passed the bill, Piccioli obtained his substitute teaching certificate. A month later, on Jan. 10, 2007, Preckwinkle again emailed IFT employees, saying that the bill was on the governor’s desk. “At this time, I need to know who is in the pipeline for completing a substitute teaching assignment, your status, and when you expect to satisfy the requirements of the bill,” wrote Preckwinkle, who himself had obtained a substitute teaching certificate three weeks before the General Assembly passed the bill and so also qualified for a TRS pension. “I will try to ensure that anyone who wishes to get coverage under this legislation has enough time to do so prior to (the governor’s) signature.”

Twelve days later, Piccioli worked one day as a substitute teacher in a Springfield School District 186 elementary school – Theis’ dissent does not name the school. He never again taught in a classroom, according to the dissent.

After the Chicago Tribune in 2011 published a story about Preckwinkle and Piccioli qualifying for TRS pensions, the legislature quickly rescinded provisions in state law that allowed private sector employees to collect state pensions.

In her dissent, Theis wrote that the 2007 amendment to state pension law that allowed Piccioli to collect a state pension was itself unconstitutional, rendering moot any argument that the state’s repeal of the law wasn’t proper.

In a press release, Esther Seitz, Piccioli’s lawyer, wrote that constitutional protections of pension rights would be “a hollow promise” absent today’s ruling. In an interview, she acknowledged that the facts of the case may not be appealing, but that’s irrelevant.

“Justice isn’t always popular or even politically correct,” she said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.


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