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State Senate moves to kill law that boosted suburban chief’s pension

Thomas Sheahan. FILE PHOTO.   Scott Stewart/Sun-Times

Thomas Sheahan. FILE PHOTO. Scott Stewart/Sun-Times

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Updated: July 3, 2012 10:50AM

SPRINGFIELD — A former suburban police chief who benefited from an obscure pension sweetener and unapologetically declared “I deserve every penny of it, and I deserve a lot f------ more” could wind up getting a lot less.

By a 31-18 vote, the state Senate Friday moved to repeal a state law that allowed retired Oak Brook Police Chief Thomas Sheahan — a member of one of Chicago’s better-known political families — to boost his pension by more than $30,000 a year.

The deal that originally benefited Sheahan passed the General Assembly in 2007 and was signed into law by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, eventually blindsiding the western suburb with a tab of $750,000 in unfunded pension liabilities.

The sponsor of Friday’s corrective measure, state Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale), credited the Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association for shining the spotlight on Sheahan’s sweetheart deal in a March investigation.

“As long as we’re doing pension reform, why don’t we start with this one right here?” said Dillard, whose legislation now moves to the House and whose district takes in part of Oak Brook. “A three-quarters of a million dollar cost on a relatively small village from a pension scheme is outrageous.”

Sheahan — brother of former Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan and James “Skinny” Sheahan, a long-time aide to ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley — said the Statehouse move on his pension Friday was news to him.

“I don’t follow any of that, I didn’t hear,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about the first legislation, and I don’t know anything about this.”

Sheahan was the only person to benefit from the 2007 provision that was tucked into a larger bill aimed at safeguarding the pensions of police widows. That bill was sponsored by state Rep. Robert Molaro (D-Chicago), who has since left the Legislature and signed on as a contract lobbyist for Oak Brook,

In short, the law that benefited Sheahan created a now-expired six-month window for members of one public-sector pension fund (the Municipal Employees’ Annuity and Benefit Fund or MEABF) to transfer credit into another (the “Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Personnel” program of IMRF) if they participated in both.

That enabled Sheahan to shift five years of credit from MEABF into IMRF so he could retire in 2011 with roughly 24 years of combined service. Without the legislation, he would have had fewer than 19 years of service and retired with two pensions worth a collective $45,000 rather than one worth $77,000.

Sheahan, who worked for Oak Brook for six years, is drawing that pension now on top of a $65,000-a-year salary he draws for being the part-time village manager of Lyons.

When the Sun-Times and BGA reported on his pension deal in March, the 59-year-old Sheahan said “I worked for 24 f------ years [in the public sector], I deserve every penny of it and I deserve a lot f------ more.”

Even though the state Constitution bars any diminishment of pensions, Dillard said he believes his measure will pass constitutional muster and said that it is patterned after November legislation Gov. Pat Quinn signed that repealed the pensions of a pair of Illinois Federation of Teachers lobbyists, Steve Preckwinkle and David Piccioli.

They substitute-taught for a day and, under a 2007 law, were permitted entry into the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System. The law allowed them to count their years in the union toward a state pension, permitting Preckwinkle to reap a pension of as much as $108,000 upon retirement.

“It would be the same issue with Preckwinkle,” Dillard said, when asked about any constitutional questions in repealing Sheahan’s pension. “I’d say [Sheahan] got this under false pretenses. He obviously would have to litigate it, but the set of facts is very bad for him.”

Dillard’s measure originated with Oak Brook, whose village attorney, Peter Friedman, characterized Dillard’s effort as one that “rights a wrong.”

“There’s no reason why the General Assembly cannot take action to declare the Sheahan provision to be null and void. That’s what we asked, and that is what Sen. Dillard has successfully advanced,” he said.

The village already has appealed to the IMRF to undo Sheahan’s current pension, and that process is pending.

Robert Herguth is editor of investigations for the Better Government Association.

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