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Article updated: 1/1/2014 10:53 AM

Ex-cop in Grayslake wins pension battle; who has state's highest pension?

Two state pension recipients cash in

Conrad Gutraj

Conrad Gutraj

 
A still from a Hanover Park red-light camera shows an Illinois Department of Transportation vehicle running a red light in May. The driver of the car used agency stationery to get out of the ticket and is being investigated.

A still from a Hanover Park red-light camera shows an Illinois Department of Transportation vehicle running a red light in May. The driver of the car used agency stationery to get out of the ticket and is being investigated.

 
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With a new year beginning, what better time than now to look back at some of the investigations that piqued the most interest in 2013?

Every so often we'll take tidbits of information learned in the wake of our reports and compile what we've dubbed watchdog kibble.

Updates on a former Grayslake police sergeant's pension battle, new details in the case of a state transportation worker who got out of a red-light camera ticket, and who has the highest pension in the state are included in this serving.

Double COLA

Former Grayslake police sergeant Conrad Gutraj will receive two 3-percent cost-of-living increases to his pension each year for the rest of his life.

A two-year battle between Gutraj and the village's police pension board ended recently when the state's Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal to an earlier court decision that granted Gutraj the extra annual increase. Gutraj is on the pension board and did not recuse himself during closed-door sessions regarding his case, though he never voted on any matter involving his pension.

Gutraj -- who has been receiving a duty disability pension since 2000 when he suffered a heart attack while performing administrative tasks in the police station -- will now receive the additional pension increase because he is over the age of 60.

The double cost-of-living increase is the result of a 2001 amendment to the state's pension law that allowed disabled former police officers 30 days to apply for additional benefits. The disabled officers had to fall within a set of very narrow guidelines in order to qualify for the increase, which is no longer available to new retirees. Many believe the law was amended to assist a single injured officer, but Gutraj and other disabled officers were also able to take advantage.

For Gutraj, that means his annual pension of roughly $50,000 in 2013 will rise to $68,000 in 2014 because the increase is retroactive to his initial retirement. So every year now, instead of receiving an annual increase of $1,146, he will receive double that. His annual cost-of-living adjustments are not compounded and are based on 3 percent of his original pension amount, which was $38,204.

He also received nearly $29,000 in retroactive pay that was on hold while the two sides fought over the extra increase, according to financial documents from the village. Much of that will go toward his legal costs, Gutraj said.

"I never had any doubt which way the court was going to rule on it," he said. "The two sections of law relating to the increases have always been mutually exclusive."

Village officials offered no comment on the conclusion of the matter. It's unclear what the final cost to taxpayers was to fight Gutraj, but as recently as July the legal bill was up to $23,000.

Behind the wheel

A few months ago, we reported that Illinois Department of Transportation employee James A. Frederick got Hanover Park police to dismiss a red-light camera ticket issued to an IDOT vehicle by sending in a handwritten note on agency letterhead.

Now, state transportation officials have acknowledged Frederick was the driver of that truck at the time of the infraction.

IDOT officials initially would not say who was driving the vehicle that was recorded on video running a red light May 29 in the intersection of Lake Street and Barrington Road but provided the information in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Frederick wrote a letter to Hanover Park police saying the vehicle was performing state duties at the time of the infraction. Hanover Park police dismissed the $100 ticket, the only such dismissal in the past two years. Video of the infraction shows no roadwork occurring in the intersection, and IDOT officials also noted that the agency was not conducting any work in Hanover Park on the day Frederick drove through the red light.

IDOT workers are responsible for paying any traffic-related fines incurred in state vehicles, according to agency manuals. They are also required to notify their superiors of such citations. IDOT officials said in the past that they were unaware the ticket had been issued.

Frederick, a 66-year-old Bartlett resident, would not comment about the ticket when reached at home in August. IDOT officials said they would investigate the incident, but spokeswoman Paris Ervin did not respond when asked for an update into the investigation.

State records show Frederick is employed with the agency and is paid more than $80,000 a year in his position as highway maintenance lead worker.

Biggest pension

The retired head of the oral surgery program at the University of Illinois at Chicago has the state's highest annual pension, according to a new report by the Illinois Policy Institute.

Dr. Leslie Heffez, who still operates a practice out of Highland Park, made $516,413 from his pension in 2013, according to the report. Heffez's retirement benefit is the state's only half-million-dollar pension, though others come close.

Heffez, who retired in 2012, took over the top pension spot from Dr. Tapas Das Gupta, a retired neurosurgery professor at the same university.

Ted Dabrowski, vice president of policy at the institute, said Heffez's pension stands to earn him $17.3 million over his lifetime, based on actuarial tables and under the state's current pension law. If the pension reforms passed by the legislature are enacted, his lifetime payout would drop to $13.6 million because of changes to the way cost-of-living adjustments are calculated, Dabrowski said.

Under the new law, pensionable salaries are capped to eliminate these higher six-figure pensions.

Heffez, an internationally recognized expert in his field and award-winning instructor, worked at the university for 29 years and led his department from 1993 to 2006. During that time, he contributed $768,611 to his retirement plan, an amount he'll make up in less than two years of retirement, Dabrowski noted.

"This is a significant reduction, but the near-insolvent pension system is still granting COLA's to millionaire pensioners like Dr. Heffez," Dabrowski said. "Even under the new (law), Heffez will have only contributed 5.7 percent into the system compared to his (expected) lifetime payout."

Got a tip?

Contact Jake at jgriffin@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4602. Follow him at facebook.com/jakegriffin.dailyherald and at twitter.com/DHJakeGriffin.

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