www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/anne-arundel/bs-md-ar-pension-bills-20120919,0,5142844.story

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Arundel demands county employees repay retirement benefits

After overpaying pensions, county moves to recoup money from state prosecutors, delegate

By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

8:47 PM EDT, September 19, 2012

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When he evaluated his retirement options five years ago, Assistant State's Attorney Fred Paone settled on a deal to collect his pension while working as a part-time prosecutor.

Now, Anne Arundel County has sent Paone a $115,672.50 bill demanding that he repay retirement benefits and a notice that his future pension checks will be cut as long as he works for the county.

An internal audit had revealed that Paone, 61, and three other workers at the Anne Arundel state's attorney's office were illegally collecting full pension payments while working part time. Each had been told they were allowed to do so, but when the county discovered the mistake, it threatened lawsuits to recoup a total of $229,030.83 in pension checks.

"From my point of view, it's completely unconscionable what the county is doing," Anne Arundel State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said this week. He said he asked the retirees to take their jobs only after the county said their pension benefits would stay intact.

"You can't trust the county's personnel office?" Weathersbee asked.

Senior Assistant County Attorney Julie Sweeney said, "The law was clear, but the personnel office misapplied it. It was a good-faith mistake."

The employees have fought back. The first of four separate appeals began this week, and the fight has drawn concerns from county lawmakers.

"They were not told about the situation that they're now in, owing the county money," said Councilman Jerry Walker, a Republican from Gambrills. "To replace them would cost more than what we're currently paying them. I don't think it's fair."

The employees say they might not have taken the part-time jobs if they had known they would lose $1 in pension benefits for every $2 they earned. The policy effectively halves the paycheck retirees earn when rehired.

"I was happily retired," said Nancy B. Hirschman, who now faces a $80,150 bill from the county for returning to work to run Weathersbee's mediation program.

The mistakes also affect administrative office manager Theodore Sophocleus, who owes $27,084.75, and prosecutor Frank J. Ragione, whose tab is $6,123.58. Sophocleus also is a state delegate.

Paone, who is also an Annapolis alderman, said he would let the proceedings speak for themselves.

"I challenge you to find an attorney who will work for $26.50 an hour," Paone's lawyer Susan Ford said to the county's Board of Appeals Tuesday night.

"The employment market for someone in his 60s, he feels, is not the same for someone in his 50s," Ford said of Paone. "He can't get those 41/2 years back. Had the county been straight with him," he might have made another choice.

Sweeney said the provision dates to a 1969 county law. Exceptions for other workers did not apply to high-salaried jobs such as those at Weathersbee's office, she said, and "it's really unfair to create an exception for the state's attorney's office."

County personnel officer Andrea Fulton declined to comment on how the mistake arose. In a letter to the auditor who discovered it, Fulton's office said personnel officers will now review how re-employment affects pension benefits and retirees will sign a document saying they understand the rules.

Sophocleus, 73, whose own hearing has been postponed, testified in Paone's case that the county approved budgets paying the part-time workers year after year without raising concern.

"It was very transparent," he said, adding that the office cleared Paone's hiring ahead of time. "We wanted to make sure we were doing it the right way."

ecox@baltsun.com