Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Retirement buyouts may be over

Lebanon program set off criminal investigation

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — An early retirement buyout program that sparked a criminal investigation is about to disappear.

        City Council may get its first look tonight at a new contract that was approved Wednesday by electric department workers repre sented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 648.

        The workers' last contract expired in January. The proposed three-year contract includes annual 3 percent raises, said Don Vidourek, the union's business manager.

        Conspicuously absent is the buyout program, under which the city encouraged early retirement by paying the Public Employees Retirement System as though the retiring employee had worked an additional five years. That translated to a larger pension.

        Four electric department employees took the buyouts from the program's inception in 1995 until 1999. However, controversy over the eligibility of three high-ranking city employees who took the buyouts in late 1999 prompted the city to take a closer look at the program.

        “It's expensive,” Councilman Ron Pandorf said. Too, he said, past events proved it vulnerable to abuse.

        City Council learned in early 2000 that City Attorney Bill Duning, City Auditor Debbie Biggs and electric department chief Bob Newton received the buyouts when they retired in December 1999. Combined cost to the city: $486,000.

        The Ohio Ethics Commission investigated allegations that Mrs. Biggs and Mr. Newton approved their own and each other's buyouts, and that the transfer of money for the buyouts was slipped past council without members' knowledge.

        A special prosecutor was appointed this month to further investigate the ethics commission's findings.

        Additionally, Mrs. Biggs has sued Lebanon for the return of her buyout money, which PERS sent back to the city, and Lebanon sued Mr. Newton and PERS for the return of his buyout money.

        Mr. Duning voluntarily returned his portion.


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