Former Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks, whose $283,000 pension is among the largest of any retired government employee in California, is suing the county for a supplemental benefit that would pay him another $75,000 a year.
Brooks retired in January 2011 after 37 years with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, the last 12 as the county’s elected sheriff. He draws a pension of about $283,000 a year, according to public records provided by the Ventura County Employees Retirement Association. In the last year of his career, he had $272,000 in total compensation, including a base salary of $227,600 and a longevity bonus, health benefits and uniform and car allowances.
Brooks claims he is entitled to about $75,000 a year more, under a supplemental benefit for Ventura County elected officials, for a total annual pension of around $358,000. That would be by far the biggest pension of any Ventura County retiree, and larger than any pension now being paid by the California Public Employment Retirement System.
CalPERS administers pensions for the state government and most local government agencies in California. Ventura County has its own pension system, as do Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
Brooks has been seeking the extra benefit since shortly after he retired in 2011, according to his lawsuit. He sued the county Sept. 25, after a pension committee made up of top county executives ruled in June that he is not eligible for the benefit.
Jim McDermott, an attorney with Ferguson Case Orr Paterson in Ventura, said he thinks Brooks’ lawsuit is “outrageous.” McDermott is a board member of the Ventura County Taxpayers Association but said he was not expressing the group’s official position.
Even without the supplemental benefit, Brooks’ pension is inflated by factoring compensation beyond his base salary, McDermott said. The state has cracked down on such “pension spiking” for new hires, though current employees and retirees like Brooks aren’t covered by the new limits.
“The fact that he spiked his pension beyond his base salary was a slap in the face to taxpayers. This is stabbing them in the back,” McDermott said. “What chutzpah.”
Brooks did not reply to a request for comment sent through his attorney. The attorney, Anthony Strauss, said Brooks was told many times before he retired that he would receive the extra benefit.
“He planned his retirement based upon that,” Strauss said. “He made decisions based on the expectation that he was going to be taken care of. ”
Brooks’ position is that he qualifies for Part D of the county’s supplemental retirement plan, a benefit for elected officials who served between 2000 and 2004.
The Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved Part D to bring the pensions of elected leaders, like the sheriff, in line with those of their top appointed deputies. Without Part D, top appointed officials usually earn bigger pensions than elected ones, because unlike their elected bosses, they can factor unused vacation time and bonuses for advanced degrees into their pensions. The supplemental benefit allowed elected officials to base their pensions on what they would have made had they been eligible for those bonuses.
The supervisors repealed the Part D benefit in 2004.
County attorneys say Brooks can’t receive the benefit because his compensation of $272,000 was higher than the Internal Revenue Service limit for pension-eligible pay. That limit was $245,000 when Brooks retired and is now $255,000.
Brooks’ standard pension is not subject to the IRS limit because he entered the county pension system long before 1996, when the limit went into effect, according to a 2011 memo from County Counsel Leroy Smith to the Ventura County Supplemental Retirement Plan Committee. The committee is made up of high-ranking county officials and administers Part D and other benefits outside of the county’s standard pension plan.
By the time Part D began in 2000, the IRS limit was already in effect. Since Brooks’ salary was above the existing limit the whole time the benefit was in place, Smith advised the committee to deny Brooks’ application for Part D money.
The county’s attorneys believe that if Brooks gets the Part D benefit, it will jeopardize the legal status of the supplemental retirement plan and the pensions of its members. In addition to retired top executives like Brooks, it covers county employees who took early retirements and former part-time workers who aren’t eligible for the standard county pension but weren’t paying into Social Security.
Strauss, Brooks’ attorney, said he believes the county’s lawyers “misinterpreted” the IRS regulation. The supplemental benefit should be seen as an entirely different pension plan, Strauss said.
That would make Brooks’ “salary” for the supplemental plan about $75,000 — the difference between his actual pay and what he could have made if he had vacation buy-backs and other benefits that don’t go to elected officials.
“It’s as if he had two different jobs with two different pension plans,” Strauss said. “The IRS limits are on a per-plan basis.”
That may be true, said McDermott, who practices employment law and often deals with private-sector retirement benefits. But he called it “a scheme to circumvent the purpose of the IRS rules.”
“It might be technically possible, but that’s playing games. It’s not the right thing to do,” he said.
The IRS limits are in place for a reason, McDermott said. They’re meant to keep people from deferring large portions of their income — and thus, their income taxes — until after retirement. “The IRS would like their money now,” he said. “The whole idea is that they don’t want people to be able to defer their income and spread it out over long periods of time. Everybody would love to equalize their income over the lifetime, but most people can’t do that.”
Strauss, Brooks’ attorney, said the former sheriff does not see his Part D benefit as “a windfall.”
“He is an extremely generous man and travels on humanitarian missions all the time, to Haiti and other places,” Strauss said. “That’s the way that he uses his funds.”