10:09 p.m. CDT, September 1, 2011
Every month, Thomas Villanova gets a $9,000 reminder of how lucrative it can be to serve as a union leader in Chicago.
The sum is part of a city pension that comes on top of the $198,000 annual salary he is paid to represent the interests of thousands of city workers.
Villanova last worked for the city in 1989 as an electrical mechanic with the Department of Streets and Sanitation, making about $40,000 a year. Yet in 2008 he was allowed to retire at age 56 with a $108,000 city pension. That's because, under a little-known state law, his pension was based not on his city paycheck but on his much higher union salary.
This kind of deal is available only to union officials who meet certain requirements, but a Tribune/WGN-TV investigation has uncovered documents that show Villanova violated state law when he applied for the pension and cast doubt on whether he truly qualifies for all that money.
To boost his taxpayer-supported city pension, Villanova signed documents certifying that he had waived his union pension and had two union officials write letters supporting his claim. In fact, records show dues collected from the rank-and-file were still set aside for Villanova's union pension.
When city pension fund officials discovered last year that Villanova never gave up his union pension, they gave him a pass and didn't move to take away his city retirement benefits.
What's more, labor leaders can get an inflated city pension only if they are on a leave of absence from a city job to work full time for a union. But officials from the municipal pension fund approved Villanova's application despite city employment records that show he took a leave to go back to school and then let that leave of absence expire in 1992.
Now just 58, Villanova stands to collect approximately $3 million from the city's municipal pension fund during his lifetime, according to a Tribune/WGN-TV analysis based on the fund's actuarial assumptions. And because the state's pension laws are so broken, he didn't have to contribute enough to the city pension fund to cover the costs, which means taxpayers will make up the shortfall.
"It's egregious. I haven't seen this anywhere else in the country," said Keith Brainard, research director of the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, when he heard about Villanova's deal. "The spirit of a pension plan is insurance against poverty. It's not to become wealthy."
In order to receive an inflated city pension, state law says labor leaders can't be part of any pension plan from their union. Yet Villanova is one of four officials from Local 134 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who received city pensions based on their union salaries even though they never gave up their union pensions.
Terrance Stefanski, executive director of the Municipal Employees' Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago, conceded that the union leaders violated state law by participating in both the city and union pension funds at the same time. But he said the law is confusing and the city pension fund isn't in a position to determine whether the labor leaders knowingly submitted false information, which would be a felony.
"We are not an investigative agency," he said.
Stefanski said the city still considered Villanova to be on a leave of absence, and therefore he qualified to receive the pension perk.
Villanova declined to be interviewed. Through attorney Patrick Deady, Villanova said he followed the city pension fund's directions and that he qualified for his city pension because he taught union apprenticeship classes while in school.
Now president of the Chicago and Cook County Building and Construction Trades Council, Villanova helped negotiate every current collective bargaining agreement between Chicago and the 33 trade unions that do business with the city.
With the Emanuel administration struggling to fill a $635 million budget hole, Villanova sits at the bargaining table and speaks on behalf of 8,000 city tradesmen who face layoffs, furlough days and reduced benefits, in no small part because of the city's rising pension costs.
Today, the municipal pension fund is racing toward insolvency, with barely half of the assets needed to cover its liabilities. That means city workers face threats not only to their current job security but also to their future retirement security.
The average city retiree receives a pension of about $28,000 a year, roughly a quarter of what Villanova is drawing from the same fund.
Meanwhile, about $200,000 in rank-and-file dues that were paid into a union pension fund for Villanova have yet to be returned to the union. Documents show that Villanova agreed in writing last year to "disclaim" the pension money — but left the door open to taking it back if the rules change.
Villanova's six-figure city pension is far better than that offered by his former union, Local 134.
The local's pension plan would have provided Villanova with 45 percent of his average salary during his highest-paid five years of work. He couldn't retire until he turned 65, however, without forfeiting a significant chunk of his union pension.
Under rules governing the city pension plan, on the other hand, Villanova could retire from his old city job at 56 with 70 percent of his average union salary during the prior four years; that average turned out to be $158,000. What's more, he could keep his high-paying union position.
To get that deal, Villanova had to make $344,000 in contributions to the plan as if he had been a city employee all along. He also had to submit an application certifying that he met all the criteria for the city pension, including that he wasn't part of a union pension plan.
In November 2008, Villanova signed an application that included this line: "I also understand that I am allowed to make these contributions as long as I do not receive credit in any pension plan established by such local labor organization."
In addition to his signed application, Villanova submitted a letter from a trustee of Local 134's pension plan that said Villanova had waived his union pension.
"We are in receipt of a letter from Mr. Villanova requesting that his Local 134 pension credits cease immediately. The Local 134 Executive Board will act upon his request accordingly," Peter Cerf, the pension fund's executive board secretary, wrote in September 2007.
Frank O'Lone, secretary-treasurer of the trades council, also wrote a letter on Villanova's behalf, in October 2008. "Thomas Villanova will not receive any pension credits in the Building Trades Council Pension Plan for the period starting 3/5/2004 to present," the letter read.
Yet documents submitted by the union pension fund to the U.S. Department of Labor show that money set aside for Villanova remained in the fund.
When Villanova became president of the trades council in 2004, Local 134 amended its pension plan to allow certain employees of the council to be participants. The Tribune and WGN-TV were able to identify contributions the trades council made on Villanova's behalf because he was one of only two council employees who were part of Local 134's plan and the only one who had worked long enough to be vested.
Records submitted by the union pension plan show that, in all, about $200,000 in member dues from the trades council went toward a union pension for Villanova. He also received a decade's worth of contributions from Local 134 members before becoming president of the trades council. But it's impossible to know the total from publicly available documents.
Officials from Local 134 and the trades council declined to comment on Villanova's pensions.
The municipal pension fund discovered in September 2010 that Villanova was not complying with state law by participating in both funds. City pension officials could have pursued criminal charges against him if they thought he had knowingly made false statements on his pension application, which is a felony.
Municipal pension fund officials had Villanova sign an affidavit admitting that he was participating in both plans at the same time and promising to "disclaim" union contributions that overlap with his city pension. But the money is staying in the fund in case municipal pension fund requirements "are reversed pursuant to action of the (fund's) trustees or litigation by similarly situated participants."
That means Villanova wasn't required to return union members' money that went to his union pension, and eventually he still could get access to it.
'It does look bad'
Villanova's hefty municipal pension depended, in large part, on how he described his leave of absence from the city in his pension application.
"I was an employee with the City of Chicago or Board of Education," his signed application states, "and was granted a leave of absence to work as an employee of the labor organization named below." The organization he wrote in was Local 134.
Yet city records show that Villanova didn't take a leave of absence to work for Local 134. He took a leave to attend Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. While there, he earned roughly $41,000 a year working for the college, state records show.
Under city work rules, employees can receive various types of leaves, including disability, maternity, military, personal and union. City workers must apply for a leave of absence and in many cases must renew those requests after a certain time period has elapsed.
Villanova applied for his leave of absence on Oct. 25, 1989, according to city employment records. In the section of the form marked "Reason for Request," he wrote: "Return to school for advanced courses."
He renewed his leave every three months, filing seven requests in all. On each, he wrote that he was taking a leave to go back to school. All of the forms he signed say that if he failed to report back to his city post within five days after his leave of absence expired, he would resign his position with the city.
Villanova's last leave of absence request expired on July 24, 1991. State records show that he continued working full time for the state community college until November 1992. The municipal pension fund's own records show that he didn't start at Local 134 until January 1993, a year and a half after he had effectively resigned his city job.
Yet when Villanova applied for a city pension in November 2008, the municipal pension fund approved an amount based on his union salary — even though he did not take a leave of absence to work for a union and had allowed the leave he did take to expire 17 years earlier.
The fund's board of trustees, composed of union leaders and city officials, signed off on Villanova's $108,000-a-year pension in February 2009, backdating the start of his benefits to November 2008.
"It does look bad," said city Treasurer Stephanie Neely, a trustee of the city pension fund. "But we on the pension board didn't do anything wrong. We did everything we could do, and that's all I can somewhat control."
As part of the justification for awarding him the higher city pension, the municipal pension fund provided the Tribune and WGN-TV with a 2008 letter written by then-Deputy Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Vanessa Quail on Villanova's behalf.
"Mr. Villanova's current status with the Department of Streets and Sanitation is that we regard him on a personal leave of absence," she wrote. "While we have not located any leave of absence papers of Mr. Villanova's subsequent to April of 1991, that is not inconsistent with his retaining his status."
The reason he was able to maintain his leave of absence: No one at the city department entered a code in its computer system showing that Villanova had given up his post. According to Stefanski, the technicality means Villanova qualifies for a city pension based on his union salary.
Thanks to his work at Moraine Valley, Villanova's city pension is one of two public pensions he is currently receiving.
Villanova gets another $12,000 a year from the State University Retirement System of Illinois, based on his work for the community college. Although he held that job for only three years, state law allows him to receive reciprocal pension benefits from SURS when he retired from the city.
That pension is also based on his union salary, not the $41,000 he made working for the community college.
In all, Villanova takes home about $120,000 a year from taxpayer-supported pension systems, an amount that will grow by 3 percent every year as long as he lives.
WGN-TV producer Marsha Bartel and reporter Mark Suppelsa contributed to this report, along with Tribune reporter Jodi S. Cohen.
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