COVER STORY

PENSION HERO!

Beware Foes of Fiduciary justice! Council Gadfly and PENSION HERO, Curtis Lee! is out to save the city from irresponsible spending and impending financial ruin (or maybe not)

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Late into a marathon session on the evening of Tuesday, June 9, having just passed a highly anticipated bill to reform the city of Jacksonville’s police and firefighter pensions, the council returned to chambers for the obligatory public comments session. As District 11 Councilmember Ray Holt read names from the stack of blue public comment cards, it became apparent that a grueling four-and-a-half hours of legislative wrangling by the assembled 18 elected officials had lulled most mortals into indifference, then toward the comfort of their home.

 

Patiently waiting in the wings, however, was Curtis Lee.

Forget any talk from a giddy council of forward momentum or the value of compromise; Lee would have none of it. As the city’s self-appointed pension protector, the passage of the reform bill was just one more felonious assault on what he deemed the eighth virtue: fiscal responsibility.

“You have given a whole bunch of people who may be dissatisfied grounds to further much up the pension reform process,” he told the council that evening. “So I’m quite sad you have done what you’ve done.”

 

“I must alert the caped crusader, for the sake
of us all.”

Gotham Police Commissioner Jim Gordon

 

The Bat-Signal first beamed on Curtis Lee on Nov. 24, 2009.

After reading a Florida Times-Union article reporting Jacksonville’s Police & Fire Pension Fund (PFPF) had the earnings to only cover less than 50 percent of its pension obligations, Lee was alarmed.

 

“To the Batmobile!”

Batman

 

He knew if a pension fund is less than 80 percent funded, it’s troubled. To explain the meaning of a fund with only 50 percent of its obligations funded, Lee employed metaphor: “A fiscal basket case,” he called it. The PFPF was $800,000 short in 2009. It’s now an estimated $1.6 billion short. During Mayor Alvin Brown’s four years in office, the city paid $200 million toward that shortfall.

That’s egregious. That’s money that didn’t go to roads or downtown redevelopment, new police or firefighters or to keep Shad Khan in town.

“There is no doubt the city’s pension costs are ruining Jacksonville,” Lee told the City Council on Sept. 28, 2010. “The city is bankrupt in any normal sense of the word.”

It’s in extremis.

“I know how pension plans are supposed to operate, and what pension plan operations should cost, thanks to my prior professional and managerial experience,” he wrote on Aug. 8, 2012. “And thus I know the PFPF is a wasteful, overstaffed, scandal-ridden mess.”

The only solution, Lee said (and he’s said it again, and again and again) is to figure out what city can afford, and then base pension reform on that figure.

 

“Holy atomic pile, Batman!”

Robin

 

Through six years of unmasked inquest into the PFPF, Lee’s message never wavered: Jacksonville can’t afford to pay the pensions benefits it’s promised. It can’t raise taxes high enough to make up a billion-plus-dollar shortfall. It can’t borrow a billion-plus-dollars, either. It must cut benefits. State law requires the city pay up. A government can’t promise employees a cushiony retirement and then renege when they retire.

To Lee, the path out is obvious, and it irritates him when folks ignore the noses on each other’s faces.

 

“It’s the Bat-Phone, sir.” 

Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth

 

The PFPF pension agreement that City Council adopted on June 9 by a 14-4 vote incorporates many reforms Lee has suggested, though he wasn’t credited. It cuts retirement pay for new employees. It requires the PFPF to use reserves to help pay down the predicted earnings shortfall. It increases current employee contributions. It stipulates that the PFPF’s next executive director have a background in managing pensions and a finance degree. Unless the PFPF becomes a registered collective bargaining agent, an unlikelihood, it will no longer be the prime pension benefit negotiator.

For Lee, it’s both not enough and too much.

He points out that over the next 13 years, the city has agreed to increase payments to the PFPF by $350 million, to pay down that $1.6 billion shortfall, yet there’s no plan for how to raise the money. He complains the City Council has hamstrung mayor-elect Lenny Curry into raising taxes by the end of his four-year term to meet the payment schedule. He also pointed out that the contract promises an immediate 1.7 percent pay increase to all firefighters and police officers to offset their increased contributions. And the City Council adopted a seven-year contract, limiting further reform well into Curry’s second term or another mayor’s first.

“I’m glad the city of Jacksonville doesn’t manufacture automobiles,” he said ruefully last week, anticipating the City Council would adopt the pension deal, “or we would all be dead.”

 

 

“That’s one trouble to dual identities, Robin. Dual responsibilities.”

Batman

 

Lee casts his call as altruistic.

“I have done this as a public service,” Lee told Folio Weekly.

However, PFPF Board of Trustees member Peter Sleiman would disagree. He once described Lee’s campaign to investigate the PFPF thusly:

“He’s basically terrorized the pension fund.”

 

 

“A routine question: Have you recently sold any war surplus submarines and, if so, to whom?”

Batman

 

Over the past six years, Lee transformed himself into an expert on Jacksonville’s PFPF pension system. He appeared frequently before City Council, framing his findings to fit the three-minute increments allotted per citizen for public comment. He educated anyone willing to give him an ear. He generated more than 1,000 emails in City Hall, most originating from his end. When he felt stymied in his records quests, he filed lawsuits. He was a man on a mission.

“As a person who knows a great deal about pensions, and as a retiree with some time to spend in pursuing governmental misconduct,” Lee explains, “I simply cannot sit idly by while bad things occur I can do something about.”

 

“A reporter’s lot is not easy, making exciting stories out of plain, average, ordinary people like Robin and me.” 

Batman

 

Sitting on the backyard deck of his modest Westside home, Lee, at 58, is relaxed with flashes of charming.

He’s dressed today in light tan jeans, a baggy and much-laundered turquoise-blue-and-black-striped golf shirt and white Nikes. I found a similar shirt advertised new online at Kmart for less than $10. When I note the brand of his shoes, he protests, “Not the expensive Nikes!” and explains he doesn’t he spend money on clothes.

“There are no $40 T-shirts in this house,” he says.

Lee comes off as a highly self-regarding Supernerd and a bit of a pedagogue. His eyeglasses are as thick as glass blocks. He lapses into a slight and endearing lisp when he speaks.

Lee grew up in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, the youngest of three children and the only boy. His father Franklin earned a degree in chemical engineering in 1941 and worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project during WWII to develop the atomic bomb. After the war, Franklin worked for a Buffalo chemical company, taught chemistry at the local community college and started a business in the basement selling scientific equipment to high schools on the side.

His mother Doris was no slacker, either. When her family couldn’t afford her tuition to Smith College during the throes of the Great Depression, Doris paid her own way as a farm laborer, picking beans.

Lee earned his law degree at New York University in 1981. But he always thought of himself as a regular working guy.

“I never was a 40-hour-a-week person. I always tried to be better than other people and harder-working than other people,” he says.

When Lee and partner Bob moved from Buffalo to Florida in 2003, they chose Jacksonville because of the low cost of living and the proximity of Jacksonville International Airport for flights back home. (Lee asked that Bob’s full name not be used in this story. He doesn’t want Bob’s family involved in his battles.)

House-shopping on a budget of $110,000 brought them to a cul-de-sac of moderately priced but non-descript ranch homes on the Westside, circa 1990. They have a swimming pool in the small backyard, but it’s the above-ground kind.

Lee explains how living small and working hard earned him freedom.

“Although I have taken a daring position here,” he says of his pension crusade, “part of the reason I can do so is because I have saved my pennies and been fiscally sensible.”

His one extravagance? He’s spent more than $180,000 of his own money on lawsuits. He will recoup the outlay by winning, he explains.

“If I had lost every penny, I’d point out that we would not have gone starving,” he says.

 

“With my head sticking out of this neosaurus costume, I might not appear like an ordinary, run-of-the-mill crimefighter.”

Batman

 

For most people, one bruising round of whistleblowing is enough. Remember, however, Lee works harder. This isn’t the first time he’s battled wrong; doubt it will be the last.

The March 2006 issue of The Economist told the story. It featured Lee as an example of the fate of a typical whistleblower. Title: “Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power.” The magazine recapped the consequences of Lee’s decision in 1999 to turn in the top three executives at National Fuel to the Securities and Exchange Commission. They broke the law, he said. According to news accounts and court documents, Lee alleged the men illegally backdated stock options. Dating a stock transfer back to a day when the dollar value was low can greatly maximize earnings as the stock jumps in value. In one of the years he documented, the Buffalo News reported, Lee alleged each executive earned an extra $100,000.

But National Fuel turned the tables.

The company sued him for divulging secrets he’d been privy to as company attorney. And won. A judge ordered Lee to return company records, which also happened to be his evidence of the stock deception. He lost his house. He lost his job. A judge ordered him to see a psychiatrist and forbid him to discuss National Fuel unless it related to his utility bill. National Fuel hired an investigator to follow him. Alerting reporters and law enforcement of the deception, Lee violated the order 83 times. For his efforts, at one point, Lee faced more than $500,000 in fines.

While the gag on his free speech was later deemed a civil rights violation and the ordered psychiatric visits were thrown out, Lee volunteered to give up his law license and retire at 44 years old to put an end to it. He tells Folio Weekly that both Bob and his parents were sick.

When a Buffalo News reporter asked Lee if he’d take the same course of action knowing it would be career suicide, Lee laughed.

“I would because I had to,” Lee said. “Based on my values, I felt I had to do it.”

“It sounds like something I would have said,” Lee tells Folio Weekly. “Some things are just wrong.”

 

 

“Good grammar is
essential, Robin.”

Batman

 

Despite his full-tilt investigation and the stacks of public records — some two feet tall — lining the walls of his home office, Lee insists the PFPF doesn’t consume him. Like Bruce Wayne, he has a life. He and Bob travel frequently, he says. They go out once a week to see a movie in a theater.

Lee also enjoys a weekly trouncing of opponents at the Jacksonville Scrabble Club. He’s the highest-ranked Scrabble player in Duval County, and ranked 17th in the state of Florida by the North American Scrabble Players Association.

But he’s neglected some mundane duties to answer Gotham’s call. As Lee sips coffee from a Superheroes mug, spiky seed heads in the backyard wiggle in the slight breeze. “I’ll get to it,” he jokes with a wave of his hand, “eventually.”

In the meantime, the guy has a city to save.

 

 

“You’re much stronger than you think. You are. Trust me.” 

Superman

 

On the conference room table at the downtown offices of the PFPF were the stacks of public records Lee had requested. Lee says Executive Director John Keane told him before he could look at them, he’d have to pay $326.40 to cover the salary of the senior staffer who assembled the documents. (Florida public records law allows a government to charge for the time it takes an employee to fulfill a records request if it involves an “extensive” amount of time, but the charge must be reasonable.) Keane also said Lee would be charged $27 an hour to pay for a secretary to make copies and $35 an hour for an employee to sit with him to protect the records while he reviewed them.

Lee was outraged. Keane was now the Joker to this Batman.

“I came away with the conclusion John Keane was a little bit underhanded,” Lee told Folio Weekly, recalling his visit to the PFPF on Dec. 19, 2010. “He was really deceptive and he really didn’t want me looking into their business.”

Lee filed a lawsuit.

Lee triumphed, eventually, but he’s still battling for attorney’s fees. The case was heard before the Florida Supreme Court in February. The PFPF says it shouldn’t have to pay Lee’s fees because it didn’t intentionally violate the law. That’s what the first judge ruled. It’s an argument with big implications for Florida’s public records law. Most people can’t afford to fork over $180,000 in legal fees. An attorney takes a case because he or she can recoup costs by winning. Because of that lawsuit, the Miami Herald named Lee one of its five “Sunshine Citizens” last year.

Lee also filed a public records case against State Attorney Angela Corey. In his investigations into the PFPF Board of Trustees, Lee discovered longtime trustee Peter Sleiman hadn’t lived in Duval County since 2006. He forced Sleiman to resign in December 2010, though Lee’s Penguin didn’t actually step down until City Council appointed a replacement in August 2012. Lee wanted Corey to prosecute Sleiman.

He hectored Corey, as is his modus operandi.

“I don’t like being ignored and I don’t like the appearance that powerful public officials can violate the law willy-nilly,” Lee wrote in one letter to Corey.

“Forgive my contempt for your office, but your office richly deserves contempt,” he wrote in another dated Jan. 25, 2011.

His badgering of our prickly state attorney didn’t inspire action. But it did lead to what has to be one of the most bizarre interludes in Lee’s pension crusade.

On Feb. 23, 2011, two investigators from Corey’s office showed up at Lee’s home around 10 a.m. One of them was wearing a gun, according to a statement Lee and his partner wrote shortly after the visit. Lee also recounts his version in a complaint he sent to Corey on Feb. 27, 2011.

State attorney investigator John Zipperer asked Lee why he cared so much about Sleiman and the Police & Fire Pension Fund, Lee recounts. Zipperer explained Lee’s telephone calls and letters might be construed as “veiled threats.” He should stop, Zipperer advised.

Lee’s lawsuit, filed on April 3, 2012, questioned a stipulation of Corey that public records be paid for either in cash or by money order. Circuit Court Judge Karen Cole agreed the requirement violated state public records laws. Cole also eviscerated Corey on the home visit.

“Plainly, a visit by two SAO investigators to a citizen only days after citizen had made a public records request directed to the SAO, coupled with the advice the citizen should ‘stop calling the SAO’ would have a chilling effect of the willingness of the citizen (or most citizens) to pursue production of the public records to which he or she is entitled under Florida law,” Judge Cole wrote.

(See Folio Weekly, “Sunshine Law: 1, Angela Corey: 0,” in blog post published Aug. 6, 2014, at http://bit.ly/1FK96Dt)

Still, to be ignored is hard on the psyche. Someone speaks truth to power, yet it feels like the audio is on mute. The impulse is to shout. Particularly in his written communications, Lee became more strident, angrier, as learned more about the PFPF and berated his pension rogues’ gallery.

To his detractors, Lee’s insults fed an image. His were the persnickety complaints of a gadfly and a cantankerous crackpot.

Snickers could be heard when he approached the dais at City Council meetings. Some councilmembers listened to his public comments with smiles fixed into a paternalistic, patronizing smirk. At the bottom of a 2012 Florida Times-Union article online, a commenter using the handle “bobjustice” left a loaded question that foreshadowed Buffalo-esque blowback, “Wonder if he’s still seeing his psychiatrist?” the commenter asked.

If a personal visit from investigators from the powerful state attorney’s office wasn’t enough to send Lee running for cover in his private retirement oasis, an incident the month before he filed his open meetings lawsuit might have.

On March 7, 2012, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office arrested Lee on a misdemeanor charge of soliciting prostitution in Tillie K. Fowler Park. The police report said Lee propositioned an undercover police officer in the park’s bathroom. He pled not guilty. Corey prosecuted him on a misdemeanor charge of engaging in lewdness.

In deposition, the officer who alleged Lee had solicited him admitted he done all the propositioning, says Lee’s attorney Nicole Jamieson, who was then in private practice. Corey’s office prosecuted. A jury found Lee not guilty. He says the city of Jacksonville also paid $37,000 in damages.

Lee’s most significant victory, though, occurred in March 2015 when Judge Thomas Beverly ruled on Lee’s Sunshine lawsuit against the PFPF, and voided the contract upon which those monstrous billion-dollar pension shortfall calculations are based. Beverly said the contract is illegal because it was negotiated in private meetings. This changed the pension dynamic. Before Beverly’s ruling, the city had to lure the PFPF into altering a 30-year agreement that had been adopted under former Mayor John Delaney and covered a span of time from 2000-2030. No changes could be made unless it was sweet enough for the PFPF to agree. The Beverly ruling took the PFPF out of negotiations and left the city and the police and firefighters union to hammer out a new agreement. And state law, agreed Beverly, only allows a three-year collective bargaining agreement. No more 30-year deals.

Lee describes the ruling as a gift to the city, but thinks the new contract approved on June 9 squanders it with a seven-year contract.

“The frustrating thing is that what I and the Concerned Taxpayers had done was give the City Council and the mayor more power,” says Lee, “and they are just frittering it away.”

Despite the Council vote and the likelihood the PFPF’s Board of Trustees will approve a seven-year contract, Lee’s pension fight isn’t over. He says the seven-year contract is illegal for the same reason the 30-year contract was. He expects it will be challenged in court and thrown out, too.

“Thirty years is idiotic. Seven years is very foolish,” he says of the new contract. “You can’t get around the three-year rule.”

I ask Lee what he might take on next, figuring he’d say he’d like to lay up in a chaise lounge with a smoking jacket and dry martini and chill.

I should have known better.

At first, Lee says, he has no master plan. But after a pause, he says he’ll probably delve into the criminal justice system. JSO. His arrest. Natch. It got him asking questions. He’s already done some preliminary sleuthing. He notes that two-thirds of the people arrested in Jacksonville in 2013 were charged with misdemeanors. And of those cases, defendants whose charges were dropped still spent an average 31 days in jail. Beam the Bat-Signal. Pick up the Bat-Phone. “This is very concerning,” Lee wrote in a draft he provided to Folio Weekly, “and suggests arrests are excessive, bails are excessive and the lives of those who are arrested on misdemeanors are being ruined, often needlessly.”

He also notes he still has his volunteer work.

I ask what volunteer work, thinking I’d missed something. His work on the city’s pension system, he responded.

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