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Mayor not interested in undoing secret pension fattener for ex-fire commissioner

8-20-08  Department Senior Services. 2102 W. Ogden Avenue. Chicago Illinois. Mayor Daley holds Public Hearing 2009 City Chicago Proposed

8-20-08 Department of Senior Services. 2102 W. Ogden Avenue. Chicago, Illinois. Mayor Daley holds Public Hearing on the 2009 City of Chicago Proposed Budget. Raymond Orozco, Director of (OEMC) Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Photo by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times

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Updated: July 15, 2013 3:14PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday showed no interest in undoing the secret deal that fattened the pension of former Chicago Fire Commissioner Ray Orozco, arguing that the controversy diverts attention from the more important issue: pension reform.

“I’ve said this before when somebody tries to take one personality and say, `That’s the problem.’ The challenge in the fund for firefighters is not Ray Orozco. It’s a mismatch between what is required on the benefits side and what’s paid into it,” Emanuel said.

“I don’t want to see us sidetracked as if if something happened to one individual, that takes care of all of it. What we have to do is fix the entire pension system to give our firefighters the security and knowledge they need so that, when they retire, it will be there and our taxpayers have a certainty that doesn’t exist today that they won’t be on the hook for something they can’t afford.”

Emanuel refused even to comment on the propriety of the scheme exposed by the Better Government Association (BGA) and reported in Sunday’s Chicago Sun-Times.

“I’m not gonna talk about the past. My focus is on the future and building a retirement system that is gonna be there for every firefighter,” the mayor said.

Five years ago, the administration of former Mayor Richard M. Daley pulled a fast one to bump up the pension of Orozco, who served Daley as fire commissioner, executive director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications and as Daley’s 12th and final chief-of-staff.

The secret maneuver gave Orozco back the fire commissioner’s title he had already relinquished to run OEMC, even though he had nothing to do with the Chicago Fire Department’s day-to-day operations.

The decision to give Orozco the expanded title, “fire commissioner/executive director of OEMC” increased Orozco’s annual pension by $27,000 — from $117,000 to $144,000.

That’s because firefighter pensions are based on the four highest-paid years of service in the last decade with the Chicago Fire Department.

If Orozco lives to 82, he’ll collect at least $4.3 million in pension payments from the Firemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund, the worst-funded of the city’s four employee pension funds.

Without the deal he got under Daley, Orozco would be in line to get $3.5 million by 82 — the life expectancy for someone his age.

Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, refused to comment on the Orozco controversy.

BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw said Emanuel did not hesitate to undo a pension sweetener for his former chief-of-staff Theresa Mintle and he should be “equally aggressive in challenging the dubious pension sweetener” benefitting Orozco at taxpayers’ expense.

“The fight against pension abuse doesn’t detract from the critical importance of enacting structural pension reform — it enhances it,” Shaw wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

“Mayor Emanuel has been capable in the past of fighting against pension abuse and for pension reform at the same time, and we would hope that he remains committed to doing both simultaneously because taxpayers deserve a pension system that is solvent and ethical,” Shaw wrote.

When Orozco applied for his pension, the firefighters pension fund questioned why he was credited for four years as fire commissioner, even though he served in the job for only two years.

Then-Corporation Counsel Mara Georges responded that Orozco had the “role and title” of fire commissioner while also serving as OEMC’s executive director and that his pension should be based on his “four-year salary as fire commissioner.”

Georges says she didn’t write to the fire pension fund “with any pension enhancement in mind” for Orozco.

“I am confident that my letter accurately put forth the facts,” says Georges, who is now partners with the former mayor’s brother Michael Daley in the law firm Daley & Georges.

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