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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Convicted Officers To Keep Pensions, Despite New Law

Convicted officers to keep pensions, despite new law
The Tulsa World by Ziva Branstetter - June 15, 2011

Grand jury investigates police corruption: Read all of the stories, view a timeline and read key documents. Two Tulsa police officers convicted in the federal corruption investigation will get to keep their pensions due to an Aug. 26 effective date on a new state law. Two other officers yet to go to trial in the case would also keep their pensions if convicted unless the trial, which begins July 25, lasted five weeks or more. Senate Bill 347, passed in the last legislative session, prohibits municipal employees convicted of certain felonies from collecting retirement benefits. The law bars police officers and other municipal employees from collecting retirement pay if they plead guilty, no contest or are convicted of a felony for bribery, corruption, forgery, perjury or “any other crime related to their office or employment.” Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, sponsored the legislation after a Tulsa World story revealed a loophole in state law allowing city employees to keep their pensions if they are convicted of felonies. State law only covered county and state employees before Mazzei’s bill passed. Though the bill passed May 9 by a vote of 43-1, its emergency clause earlier failed in the House, meaning it would go into effect three months after being signed by Gov. Mary Fallin. Mazzei agreed Wednesday that the bill would not impact any officers convicted of felonies before Aug. 26. “I do wish that it would have been able to go into effect soon enough to be applicable in this particular case but the legislative cycle can only work in the time frame that it works,” he said. “We really don’t think it’s fair to the taxpayers to foot the retirement bill for convicted felons who are municipal employees. We had that in statute for legislators and state and county employees but for some reason the statutes never covered municipal employees,” Mazzei said. Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, was among the 34 lawmakers voting against the bill’s emergency clause. He said he doesn’t recall discussion about the bill’s impact on officers charged in the police corruption case. “I can’t remember why we did that other than they didn’t convince us that it was an emergency,” Ritze said.

Retired Cpl. Harold Wells was found guilty Friday on five of 10 counts, including drug conspiracy, carrying a firearm during drug trafficking and stealing U.S. funds during an FBI sting at the Super 8 hotel in east Tulsa. Wells will collect an estimated $4,240 per month while serving what prosecutors say will be a mandatory 15 years in prison. Sentencing for Wells has not been set and he remains in segregation in the Tulsa Jail. Officers Bruce Bonham and Nick DeBruin were acquitted of all counts against them. The two remain on leave pending an internal affairs investigation but are back on the payroll at annual salaries of $62,783 and $55,830 respectively. Officer John K. “J.J.” Gray pleaded guilty last year to theft of government funds and is cooperating with prosecutors. He also keeps his pension, estimated to be $2,548 per month. Gray has been released on bond and has not been sentenced. Officers Jeff Henderson and Bill Yelton go on trial July 25 in the corruption case. If convicted, they would be eligible to keep their pensions unless the trial is longer than the law’s Aug. 26 effective date, which is unlikely given the speed of the first trial. Yelton would receive an estimated $2,548 per month if convicted. Henderson, with fewer than 20 years of service, would receive an undetermined smaller amount per month beginning in five years. Brandon McFadden, a former agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, pleaded guilty last year to drug conspiracy for his role in the corruption case. He worked for the ATF in Tulsa from 2002 through Sept. 25, 2009, when he resigned. McFadden is expected to testify against Henderson and Yelton next month. Jeff Cochran, resident agent in charge of the ATF’s Tulsa office, said because McFadden worked for the agency less than 10 years, he would not be eligible to collect a pension. Cochran declined to comment additionally on McFadden, saying: “He’s no longer an employee.”

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