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Bell asks CalPERS for more time to investigate police disability pensions

August 13, 2011 |  8:00 am

The city of Bell has asked the state retirement system for an additional three months to complete a probe on disability pensions of at least 10 police officers -- including four chiefs -- that were approved by former City Administrator Robert Rizzo.

CalPERS asked Bell to investigate the pensions back in May after The Times reported that the city used disability pensions and workers' compensation settlements to boost payments to police chiefs as they were forced from their jobs.

The city was supposed to complete the investigation two weeks ago, but a day before the July 29 deadline, attorneys for Bell requested more time. They now expect to finish by Sept. 30. The result of the investigation could bring significant savings to the city.

The agency asked the city to determine whether all disability pensions approved by Rizzo were based on competent medical opinion, and whether officials would seek "updated medical evaluations" to confirm whether the members remain disabled.

At least two former police chiefs told The Times the city wrapped unused vacation and sick pay into the workers' compensation settlements, which experts say violates tax codes. Workers' compensation settlements are tax free. Those who qualify for a disability pension do not have to pay taxes on half their earnings.

"If Rizzo wanted to get rid of you, he'd make some way to pay you off and make it beneficial for you financially," said former Police Chief Andreas Probst in a Times interview. "Too many people I can name retired on medical. Bob took care of them."

Aside from Probst, CalPERS wants the city to validate the disability pensions of other chiefs, including David Reed, Michael Chavez, and Dennis Tavernelli. Tavernelli received at least $400,000 in a workers' compensation settlement.

State law allows city councils to approve disability retirement when an on-the-job injury prevents an employee from performing normal duties. CalPERS has a 1990 resolution granting the city administrator authority over disability retirements.

The resolution predates Rizzo, and the agency has also asked the city to verify that it remains in effect.


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Credit: Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times