Suffolk commish's retirement date an issue
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Suffolk Police Commissioner Edward Webber's pension and other benefits could take a hit because of debate about when he retired from a higher-paying position in the department.
The retirement date is crucial for Webber, 65, because he wants to be able to retire and collect a 75 percent pension from his former $211,000-a-year job as chief of support services. If he were to retire at the commissioner's salary of $163,000, he would receive less in pension and other benefits.
While Webber says he officially retired from the support services position and became Suffolk's new police commissioner last Tuesday, a Newsday review of county records -- including one with Webber's own sworn signature -- shows that he formally became commissioner six weeks ago.
Webber, a certified public accountant, says he mistakenly believed he could retire from the support services job retroactively -- which is not allowed in state law.
The review of the paper trail has prompted Suffolk Comptroller Joseph Sawicki and County Executive Steve Bellone to ask State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to rule on whether Webber retired from the higher-paying chief's job.
If DiNapoli were to rule that Webber already was in the commissioner's job when he retired Monday at midnight, that could reduce his pension benefits and an estimated $307,000 in exit pay for unused vacation and sick time.
"We are going to be seeking an opinion to make sure this is being done properly and whatever the ruling of the comptroller's office, that is final," Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said.
Hours before Bellone and Sawicki decided late Wednesday to seek the state review, Bellone sent a letter to Sawicki saying Webber's appointment "is effective Oct. 9."
The statement appears to contradict the original legislative resolution confirming Webber's appointment as commissioner. The legislation -- drafted by Bellone's office -- said Webber's appointment would take effect "upon approval of this resolution," which the county executive signed Aug. 24.
Bellone also sent an Aug. 23 letter to County Clerk Judith Pascale stating: "I hereby appoint Edward Webber to the position of police commissioner effective Aug. 24."
Pascale on Sept. 5 went to police headquarters in Yaphank and witnessed Webber taking the oath to "faithfully discharge the duties of the office of SC Police commissioner," documents show. Webber and Pascale signed that oath card, which stated that Webber's term began Aug. 24.
Sawicki called Webber's transition one of "the strangest and most confusing appointment scenarios I have ever seen in Suffolk County."
After reviewing documents related to Webber's appointment, Sawicki said, "There's no question in my mind he took the oath of office effective Aug. 24, which also confirms the legislative resolution appointing him."
Schneider said the county executive still considers Oct. 9 as the effective date for Webber's appointment as commissioner.
"Was a mistake made? Absolutely. But is anyone trying to game the system or defraud the taxpayers? Absolutely not," Schneider said. "This is a unique and bizarre situation driven by a mistake the commissioner will tell you he made. No one is trying to get him more than his fair share, but we also don't want to see him penalized because he made a mistake."
Webber declined to comment.
Bellone and Webber aides say Webber was not maneuvering to stay as chief until Dec. 18, when he would have reached his 40-year anniversary with the department and qualified for higher pension benefits than he is eligible for now.
County attorney Dennis Cohen's letter to DiNapoli notes that the legislative resolution states Webber "serves at the pleasure of the county executive" and maintains "it was the pleasure of the county executive . . . that his term as police commissioner would begin upon the effective date of his retirement from the chief position."
Second appointment letter
Cohen said Bellone sent a second appointment letter to Pascale this week thinking Webber had "already retired." But Webber never resigned from the chief's position and was "under the mistaken belief he could retire . . . after he accepted the civilian position of commissioner," Cohen wrote.
But for the "mutual mistake," Cohen said, "Ed Webber would never have filed his oath of office had he known it would result in a forfeiture of his right to retire from sworn service." Nor would Bellone have named Webber commissioner "had he known his retirement was imminent," Cohen said.
DiNapoli spokeswoman Jennifer Freeman said, "We have not received the letter yet, but will review it and make a determination."
When Newsday last month disclosed that Webber would be taking both his pension benefits and commissioner's salary, Bellone accused the newspaper of "cop bashing," but said he would send Webber's appointment back before the county legislature for a new vote. Bellone aides said Webber was incorrectly being paid at the higher chief's salary and that the commissioner would refund the overpayment.
When Sawicki learned that Webber was still getting chief's pay, the comptroller reduced Webber's biweekly salary to the commissioner's level for the last two weeks of September, and took $1,700 out of his paycheck to compensate for the period dating to Aug. 24.
Given the new effective date of Webber's retirement as chief, Newsday asked Bellone aides whether the commissioner would get back the $1,700 that was taken out of his Oct. 4 paycheck. An hour later, Sawicki got the letter from Bellone saying Webber's effective date as commissioner was Oct. 9.
Sawicki said he will not return the money unless DiNapoli rules in Webber's favor.
DISPUTE OVER DATES
A debate about when Suffolk Police Commissioner Edward Webber retired from a higher paying position within the department could affect his benefits including:
PENSION: Estimated at as much as $158,000 if he retires at the higher salary level
EXIT PAY: Unused vacation and sick time totaling an estimated $307,000 if he retires at the higher salary level. Webber says he will take the sum when he steps down as commissioner.