EDITOR'S NOTE

The Last Blue Straw

Allowing a convicted felon to keep his benefits is the latest bad decision by the Police & Fire Pension Fund

Posted

It’s hard to believe that anyone thinks a police officer convicted of child molestation should keep his pension.

But at least three members of the Police & Fire Pension Fund (PFPF) trustee board do. They voted to reinstate Richard Cannon’s pension despite his August guilty plea to attempted sexual battery on a child younger than 12 and sexual battery on a child younger than 18. The State Attorney dropped 11 other molestation and sexual battery charges.

Cannon, who is 49 and served 25 years as a police officer, resigned when he was arrested in August 2011.

The board voted 3-1 to reinstate Cannon’s pension, saying he didn’t use his power as a police officer to commit these crimes. They were referring to Florida Statute 112.3173, which states some felonies against victims younger than 18 years of age by a public officer or employee through the use or attempted use of power, rights, privileges, duties or position of his or her public office or employment position can cancel retirement benefits.

It stretches the imagination to say that the children Cannon battered and molested weren't aware he was a police officer or that his position did not make it easier for him to break the law and maintain their silence.

During sentencing, Assistant State Attorney Theresa Simak questioned Cannon on whether he had molested girls throughout his career. He admitted he had. When asked if he thought he should be held to a higher standard as a police officer, he said, “No, ma’am.”

Cannon’s defense attorney, Thomas Fallis, argued that Cannon’s “stellar” career should be taken into account.

“While on the job, he was enforcing the law,” Simak said during sentencing, reported by The Florida Times-Union. “While off duty, he was breaking it. … It is hypocritical for them to say it [his job] is mitigation.”

Exactly.

Cannon received a 30-year sentence, the maximum allowed under the plea deal. His convictions would have called for up to 60 years.

While Cannon is in prison, the fund will pay about $42,000 a year, or $1.9 million total over his 30-year term, because PFPF pensions increase about 3 percent a year compounded. Jacksonville’s taxpayers will pay more than 80 percent of that, according to Curtis Lee, a retired attorney and pension fund manager who's had a volunteer watchdog role over the PFPF since 2009.

Lee was the first to uncover the board decision. The PFPF posted notice of a Dec. 10 meeting 24 hours in advance, the minimum required by law. No advance agenda was given. That meant that Lee and a few others who usually go to PFPF meetings didn't know the reason for the meeting. No minutes were posted afterward.

Lee made a public records request and received the minutes Feb. 15. For two months, none of the 14 people at that meeting gave any inkling of the decision.

“They designed it so that the normal public could not attend,” Lee said. “They know when they’re doing something the public can’t stomach. They designed it so the news would get out late. This kind of thing could have gone unnoticed forever.”

Bobby Deal (a JSO officer), Richard Tuten (a firefighter) and Nat Glover (retired sheriff and Edward Waters College president) voted to reinstate Cannon’s pension. Adam Herbert (former University of North Florida president and former State University System chancellor) voted against. Walt Bussells (former JEA CEO) didn't attend.

The PFPF is embroiled in a fight with the city over who’s allowed to negotiate changes to the pension. Meanwhile, the city’s contributions — your tax dollars — are spiraling upward.

And questions about how the PFPF is run continue to pile up, including some regarding a $44,000 raise for executive director John Keane last year, which took Keane’s salary to $283,000, a figured derived by averaging salaries of top executives at the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, Jacksonville Port Authority and Jacksonville Transportation Authority. Comparing the PFPF to those agencies is ridiculous.

The PFPF purchased a new $43,500 Ford Expedition in June 2012, trading in a 2011 Ford Flex with 25,591 miles on it.

A Senior Staff Voluntary Retirement Plan could pay Keane $200,000 a year when he retires again, on top of the roughly $60,000 pension now being paid yearly for his service on the force.

The PFPF spent $300,000 in legal fees fighting a six-year battle to reduce a disabled firefighter’s benefits — and lost.

These and other questionable practices have brought scrutiny, from a probe by the city’s chief ethics officer to questions from the First Coast Tea Party.

A bill in the Legislature would allow the City Council to create a list of those from which the fifth member of the PFPF board is selected. Now, four members of the board can choose anyone for the fifth seat. Glover, who has obvious ties to the pension fund from his police career, now holds that seat. The legislation faces strong opposition: Police officers and firefighters want to maintain control of these funds.

Nothing will bring more long-overdue public scrutiny than the Cannon decision.

The Times-Union’s Feb. 23 opinion page asked, “Should a former police officer convicted of a crime be docked his pension if the crimes did not occur while on the job?”

That’s the wrong question. Police officers are sworn to uphold the law, whether they’re on the clock or not.

The T-U editorial continued: “In the end, we came down on the side of allowing the officer to keep his pension so long as it was not job-related.”

All law-breaking is job-related if you’re a police officer. And officers should be held to a higher standard. If convicted of any felony — and perhaps even serious misdemeanors — a police officer should lose his pension and receive only the contributions he made.

We tend to see police officers and firefighters under a special halo, and that specialized and often dangerous work does deserve special treatment. But that cuts both ways.

The decision by the PFPF board has the stench of tribalism, those protecting their own interests.

And it sets a dangerous precedent.

“If you’re a cop inclined to do a crime, if you get caught, your pension is safe,” Lee said.

The city must overturn this decision through any means at its disposal. Then, it must follow through with changes to the PFPF from the top down.

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