Ventura County ex-Sheriff loses supplemental pension lawsuit
A Ventura County judge has denied former Sheriff Bob Brooks’ request for a $75,000 supplement to his existing $283,000-per-year pension.
Judge Tari Cody sided with county officials who argued that Brooks couldn’t receive the additional benefits because his final compensation exceeded limits set by the IRS. Anthony Strauss, Brooks’ attorney, said his client would not appeal the ruling.
“Sheriff Brooks is disappointed, as am I,” Strauss told the Business Times. “I still feel he was correct in his interpretation, but he’s decided not to pursue the matter any further.”
Brooks was among the highest-paid public retirees in California when he sued Ventura County last fall, and his pay could have made him the highest-paid pensioner in the state had he won. The lawsuit alarmed pension opponents and helped fuel signatures for a ballot proposal that would have switched Ventura County’s public retirement system from a defined benefit plan to a 401(k)-style defined-contribution plan for new employees. The measure was struck from the ballot by a judge who found that the system couldn’t legally be changed through the initiative process.
For all the emotion that Brooks’ lawsuit provoked from pension opponents, the legal questions it raised were narrow and technical. Brooks argued he was owed a supplemental pension benefit under a program that was enacted in 2000. Elected officials weren’t allowed to count cashed-out vacation time, educational bonuses and other non-salary compensation toward pension benefits the way that appointed officials could. The supplement created a way for them to count that extra compensation toward a benefit.
The Board of Supervisors ended the program in 2004. Brooks retired in 2011 and formally claimed he was owed a benefit in 2013.
The county denied his application and said that his compensation — roughly $272,000 — was above the $245,000 limit for pension systems set by the IRS. Brooks had argued that the supplement should be viewed as an entirely separate pension system and that only his vacation pay and other non-salary benefits of about $76,000 should have counted toward it.
“We have a different opinion on what the IRS rule means,” Strauss said.
Judge Cody said Brooks’ way of looking at the issue “ignores the plain language” of the supplement. The judge also rejected Brooks’ argument that he was entitled to the benefit because he made his decision to retire only after county officials had assured him he would receive it. Awarding Brooks the benefits would jeopardize the supplemental benefit’s tax status with the IRS, the judge wrote.
Only a handful of officials are eligible for the supplemental pension. Dave Grau, chairman of the Ventura County Taxpayers Association, said the group was alarmed by the supplemental benefit because it is not run with the oversight of the Ventura County Employee Retirement Association’s retirement board, which oversees mainstream pensions in the county. The supplemental systems are run from the county CEO’s office, Grau said, and their funding levels are not watched as closely as that of the county’s main pension fund.
“There wasn’t one penny set aside for him,” Grau said of Brooks. A victory by Brooks, Grau said, “would have instantly cost the county millions of dollars.”