State rep fights taking pension of ex-top cop from Sheahan family
BY DAVE MCKINNEY Springfield Bureau Chief May 30, 2012 4:21PM
Thomas Sheahan. FILE PHOTO. Scott Stewart/Sun-Times
Updated: May 30, 2012 9:23PM
SPRINGFIELD — Poised to cut pension benefits for tens of thousands of government workers, House Democrats moved quietly Wednesday to spare a member of one of the city’s best-known political families of any immediate, similar pension carnage.
The Illinois Senate Friday voted to repeal a state law that allowed retired Oak Brook Police Chief Thomas Sheahan to boost his pension by $30,000 a year, a windfall that was the subject of a March investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and Better Government Association.
But state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Chicago) filed paperwork Wednesday to block the Senate move, noting House Speaker Michael Madigan’s legal team raised constitutional questions about specifically targeting the brother of former Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan and James “Skinny” Sheahan, a long-time aide to ex-Mayor Richard M. Daley.
“We’d only be doing this to Mr. [Thomas] Sheahan. I don’t make a judgment on the propriety of what he did. But there is a concern in the speaker’s counsel’s office that to pass this bill would be unconstitutional,” Zalewski said.
A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) denied anyone working for Madigan had anything to do with the effort to kill the Sheahan amendment and said that it was Zalewski’s decision.
Zalewski is himself a member of a prominent Chicago political family. He is the son of Southwest Side Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd).
Late Wednesday, the legislator told the Chicago Sun-Times he intends to file legislation to address Sheahan’s pension but said it might not get consideration until lawmakers’ fall legislative session because the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn for the spring on Thursday.
“I don’t think with a day left we’ll get a resolution,” Zalewski said.
The 2007 pension sweetener that benefited Sheahan — and Sheahan only — unexpectedly left Oak Brook with $750,000 in unfunded pension liabilities, but the 59-year-old Sheahan was profane and unapologetic during a March interview about his pension increase.
“I worked for 24 f------ years [in the public sector], I deserve every penny of it and I deserve a lot f------ more,” said Sheahan, whose $77,000 pension comes on top of $65,000 he makes as part-time village manager of Lyons.
Oak Brook Village President Gopal Lalmalani called on the House to allow the Sheahan provision to be voted on.
“It’s just unfair what they’re doing to us. I know there’s a lot of politics at the last minute, but if there’s any reform to be done, this is it,” Lalmalani said.
State Rep. Chris Nybo (R-Elmhurst), who represents Oak Brook in the House, described Zalewski’s move as “very disingenuous” and said he is trying to insert the Sheahan provision in another bill.
State Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale), the author of the Senate provision taking aim at Sheahan, said his legislation is constitutional and patterned after a November measure that Gov. Pat Quinn signed, repealing the pensions 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.
“If the Preckwinkle amendment was constitutional, so is the Sheahan one,” Dillard told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“How sad it is when we’re taking away retirement benefits for long-time state employees or teachers, we’re protecting the politically connected who have cost taxpayers millions in padded benefits,” Dillard said.
Zalewski said he originally wanted to support Dillard’s amendment.
“When I read about what happened in an era when we’re dealing with pension issues and the spirit of what a pension should be wasn’t followed, my original intent was to concur,” Zalewski said. “But what I don’t want and what I think the legal counsel’s view is, we don’t want to pass a bill, have it be signed by the governor and have a lawsuit occur.”