Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Buyout battle ends in Lebanon

Retirement deals weren't caught by City Council

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LEBANON - After more than three years of controversy, criminal charges and court battles, Lebanon residents are glad to head into the new year with the city's early retirement buyout scandal in the rearview mirror.

Last week a Warren County judge ruled that the city's former electric department director can keep $170,000 in early retirement money. Some residents say they're weary of the case, which began in 1999.

"We kind of felt the same way people from Cincinnati feel about the Bengals," said Fred Seeger. "People were embarrassed to talk about it. It's nice to be over with it."

Mr. Seeger, who was born and raised in Lebanon and is owner of Seeger's Meats & Deli off Ohio 63, said the complexity and longevity of the case, which saw a public outcry and criminal charges, wore many residents out with its twists and turns. He added that he is sympathetic of what city officials had to sort out.

"They (city officials) just got caught up in something and it gave Lebanon the wrong image. It's nice to have a council now that appears to be able to concentrate on working for the city instead of on this issue," he said.

City Council said it unknowingly allocated $486,000 in December 1999 to give Bob Newton and two other city employees buyouts through an electric department early retirement program. The city asked Mr. Newton and the Public Employees Retirement System to return his buyout, but both refused on the ground that Mr. Newton was in the electric department.

Besides the civil action, the buyout controversy produced criminal charges against Mr. Newton, former city auditor Debbie Biggs, former city attorney Bill Duning and former city manager James Patrick. Charges against Mr. Newton and Mr. Patrick were dropped, however, after Mrs. Biggs and Mr. Duning - the other two buyout recipients - were acquitted.

Lebanon's lawsuit contended the city never adopted the buyout program. In his six-page decision, Warren County Common Pleas Judge P. Daniel Fedders noted that at least four employees, including City Councilman James Hause, were permitted to retire through the program.

Last week's decision ends the last pending legal action over the buyouts. Lebanon settled Mrs. Biggs' and her husband's lawsuits last month. The city paid $25,857 and its insurance company an additional $15,000, mainly to buy the six months' time Mrs. Biggs needed to be eligible for retirement.

E-mail mclark@enquirer.com

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