Dissension caused by pension maneuver involving state public safety leaders
High-ranking officials within the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety have manipulated a law enforcement pension system, sparking dissension among some employees, an investigation by The Oklahoman has found.
At issue is the 2017 "retirement" of Gerald Davidson — which one incensed insider described as a "backdoor pay raise."
Davidson retired from his $124,064-a-year position as assistant commissioner in 2017 only to be immediately appointed to the newly created position of chief of staff, where he was asked to perform many of the same duties. Then-Commissioner Michael C. Thompson authorized the change.
The maneuver made Davidson eligible to start receiving two types of retirement benefits while still receiving a salary in the new position.
Davidson, a state employee for nearly 40 years, is being paid an annual salary of $115,750 in his new position, officials said.
How much is Davidson receiving in retirement benefits? That's a secret.
State law requires the Oklahoma Law Enforcement Retirement System to keep that information "confidential," said Duane Michael, the system's executive director. That's different from the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System where information about retirement benefits of many other state employees is public record.
Davidson is likely getting about $60,000 a year in traditional pension payments, based on calculations performed by The Oklahoman that rely on known salary and work history information.
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He also was allowed to get up to five years worth of additional pension payments either in the form of a lump sum or annuity payout because he signed up in about 2012 to participate in a deferred option plan.
The Oklahoman requested an interview with Davidson, but he declined
"He's a pretty private guy," said Commissioner of Public Safety Rusty Rhoades.
Thompson said he can understand why some people might "flinch" over Davidson's pension arrangement, but said he did it for the good of the department and checked first to make sure it was legal.
"There's nothing underhanded. There's nothing shady about it," Thompson said.
"Gerald Davidson is one of the most honest, decent people I know," Thompson said. "I really, really didn't want to lose his expertise because there is nobody then and now that has as much experience and trust as Gerald."
Thompson contends his actions saved the state money. Thompson said he didn't fill the assistant commissioner's position and paid Davidson about $10,000 a year less in the new position.
The option of having Davidson continue to work as assistant commissioner wasn't available because he had signed up for the deferred option retirement plan, Thompson said.
The deferred option is a provision in the state law enforcement system's generous retirement plan that allows a plan participant with at least 20 years of service to declare their intention to retire within five years.
The person is then allowed to continue working and receiving their salary for up to five years while the system makes pension payments into a retirement account in their name.
Once their actual retirement date arrives, they must retire and leave the pension system. They can then receive their accrued deferred pension benefits in lump sum or annuity payments as well as begin receiving their traditional pension benefits which are based on their salaries when they entered the deferred option program.
Position wasn't advertised
With limited options available for retaining Davidson's services, Thompson said he discussed the situation with human resources officials and worked out the arrangement where Davidson retired and then came back in a new "civilian" position.
The new position wasn't advertised. Thompson said that wasn't required because it was an unclassified position.
Thompson said it's not unusual to see law enforcement officers retire after 20 or more years and then take new jobs where they participate in different pension systems.
Thompson acknowledged that he, himself, began drawing a pension from the Law Enforcement Retirement System after leaving his $136,464-a-year job as commissioner of public safety to accept a $184,569-a-year position as Oklahoma's adjutant general. Thompson declined to reveal the amount of his pension.
Rhoades succeeded Thompson as public safety commissioner in 2017 and inherited Thompson's administrative structure.
"I get it," Rhoades said of the criticism. "If we continue to do things the way they've always been done, I can see where someone who doesn't understand the internal workings would say, 'That's old state government running the way it's always been run.'"
"This is a new day," he declared.
After 14 months of leaving the assistant commissioner's post open, Rhoades announced in January that he was naming Megan L. Simpson, the Department of Public Safety's general counsel, to serve as the agency's new second-in-command. Rhoades said he will seek to change the job title to "chief of administration."
At first glance, Simpson's promotion would appear to increase administrative costs and create a new level of bureaucracy with two people essentially doing the same job, but Rhoades said that won't be the case.
Simpson's annual salary will increase from $96,375 to $124,000 once she becomes second-in-command, but Rhoades said that won't cause his agency's overall costs to increase. That's because Simpson will continue to handle the duties of general counsel and three entry level positions for data entry clerks will not be filled, the commissioner said.
Rhoades said he plans to retain Davidson and has asked him to oversee major projects including the transition to the Real ID identification system and modernization of the agency's information technology system. It has not yet been determined what Davidson's salary will be, Rhoades said.
Rhoades said leaving the assistant commissioner's position open for 14 months was an effort to save money, since Davidson was essentially doing the job for less money as chief of staff than he had been making previously as assistant commissioner.
"I am statutorily required to name an assistant commissioner ... but it doesn't say in the statute how long I have to do that so I took the opportunity to ... learn from Gerald and his incredible knowledge base as well as for the 14 months I was able to save that additional salary," he said.
Rhoades said he decided to hire Simpson for the job because he thinks she is the right person to move the agency forward in a very "customer centric and technology driven way."
Rhoades said he believes that is the direction both he and Gov. Kevin Stitt want the agency to go.
Rhoades said the agency does continue to have a strong need from more state troopers and he plans to present the Legislature with a five-year plan for increasing the number of troopers from 780 to 1,042.
While Rhoades is planning for the future, his future as head of the Department of Public Safety is unclear.
The governor has put Rhoades' reappointment on hold pending an investigation into whether Rhoades and/or the chief of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol gave inside information to a patrol lieutenant who was preparing to take a promotion test for captain.