From heavy hitter to double dipper?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fifteen months ago, DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett (right) was one of the most prominent Republican politicians in Illinois. He was a two-time party nominee for statewide office and the odds-on favorite to be the GOP candidate for attorney general this year.
And though he dropped out of that race in August of 2009 after Democratic incumbent Lisa Madigan announced she was running for re-election, Birkett remained a powerful and influential figure — the elected head of the state's second-largest prosecutor's office and frequent presence on television.
Now, halfway through his fourth term, he's said he wants to give it all up for a slightly lower paying job as an entry-level associate Circuit Court judge, the kind who usually hears traffic cases, small claims, divorces and routine misdemeanors.
It's a puzzling abdication until you look at the numbers.
Birkett is covered by a special pension program for elected county officials that's overseen by the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.
Because he's now 55, he's eligible to begin receiving a pension of $8,819 a month ($105,828 a year), according to IMRF data, based on a formula that includes the approximately 15 years he worked as an unelected assistant state's attorney.
For those 15 years he contributed 4 1/2 percent of his salary to the pension fund. But since December of 1998 when he joined the special program for elected officials — which vests more quickly and pays out a greater percentage of former income at the end — he's been contributing 7 1/2 percent of his income.
There's a cheap sweetener available, however. If he retroactively pays the higher percentage for those first 15 years of pension contributions — IMRF calculates the balance due at $36,798 — then his entire public career will be covered under the special deal for county elected officials and his pension will rise to $11,460 a month ($137,520 a year) which is 80 percent of his current salary.
Put another way, that $36,798 investment will pay itself back in 14 months and then return a $31,692 annual interest payment in perpetuity.
Nice, huh?
Well, it will be even nicer for Birkett if he can secure that demotion before Jan. 1, when pension reforms passed earlier this year in Springfield kick in.
Birkett announced last month that he was filling out an application for the vacancy of retiring DuPage Associate Judge Joseph Bongiorno. All such applications will be carefully considered by the local bar and studied by the sitting judges who will make the final selection.
If they name Birkett to the vacancy and do so by the end of December, he'll be able to start collecting both a judge's salary of $169,893 and that delicious $137,520 pension for his years at the state's attorney's office.
That's $307,413 a year, if you're keeping score at home.
After Jan. 1, however, a new prohibition on so-called double-dipping will prevent government employees from collecting government salaries and pensions at the same time. To Birkett, the cost of a delay — or of simply serving out the term to which he was elected and then running for a judicial vacancy in 2012 — could be close to $2 million if he were to stay on the bench until age 70.
I wanted to ask Birkett if this enormous cut-and-run bonus inspired his sudden desire to preside over fender-benders and petty squabbles in the same courthouse where he has been prosecuting some of the most high-profile murders in the state. And how he squares his political rhetoric about government waste and our irresponsibly underfunded pension systems with the apparent opportunism of his attempted early exit from office.
Will he join me in urging the DuPage County judiciary to delay any appointment to the Bongiorno vacancy until after the New Year to prevent double dipping?
I contacted his spokesman early Thursday with a set of questions — even a few yes or no questions, just to get him on the record. But, darn the luck, came the response, "He's really tied up."
Investment planning, no doubt.