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Bulger seeks to augment state pension

As he leaves the University of Massachusetts, President William M. Bulger is looking to sweeten his annual pension deal, already expected to top $200,000, by about $32,000.

In a request filed yesterday, Bulger asked that his annuity and housing allowance be considered as income when his future pension payments are calculated. That would boost Bulger's final salary for pension purposes by about $50,000, to approximately $360,000 a year. While the details are yet to be worked out, the 69-year-old Bulger's annual pension would probably jump to about $230,000, according to the state treasurer's office. His wife would be entitled to two-thirds of that amount after his death. The request must be reviewed by the state pension board, likely in October.

The attempted pension change comes on top of Bulger's $960,000 severance package, which Governor Mitt Romney described as "excessive." Bulger's last day as the president of the UMass system is Tuesday, and his last-minute attempt to receive a larger pension came under immediate fire.

"You're going out the door, grabbing everything but the pictures on the walls," said UMass trustee Lawrence Boyle, who voted against Bulger's severance package earlier this month. "It's supposed to be public service, not self-service, and it just reflects very poorly on the university. . . . We don't have enough money to fund employee raises, we're laying people off, we're cutting programs, and then he's taking good care of himself."

In a letter submitted on Bulger's behalf to the State Board of Retirement, UMass human resources director Roy S. Milbury asked that, for the purposes of calculating his pension, the $21,000 paid annually to Bulger's annuity and his $29,000 yearly housing allowance be added to his $309,000 annual salary.

Milbury wrote that Bulger is entitled to have them count toward his pension because they were deemed by his UMass contract to be "part of [his] regular compensation."

"We believe that there may be basis for appropriately including the annuity payments and the housing allowance in the calculation of President Bulger's highest three years for purposes of determining his retirement allowance," he wrote.

Unlike his regular salary, Bulger never contributed a percentage of his housing allowance and annuity to the state pension fund. In fact, to clear the way for the retirement board to grant his request, Bulger attached to his application a check to the state for $14,659.85, 5 percent of the $293,197 he received since 1996 for the annuity and housing allowance. Bulger's action is known as a "buyback" and is a fairly common strategy by retirees who want to include all their compensation toward their pension calculations.

A Bulger spokesman at UMass, Robert Connolly, said Bulger has a right to have his benefits included in his state pension.

"Whatever he has submitted is [what] he believes is reasonable, and his legitimate retirement benefit after 42 years of state service," he said.

Bulger's long public service makes him eligible for the maximum state pension benefit, which is 80 percent of his average salary over his three highest-paid years. But because Bulger chose to have his wife, Mary, continue to receive a portion of his pension payments upon his death, his annual payments will be 20 percent less.

The final decision on whether to grant Bulger's request rests with the five-member State Board of Retirement, which is chaired by state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill. Such requests are typically reviewed based on a range of factors, on a case-by-case basis, said Karen Sharma, a Cahill spokeswoman.

The retirement board often receives letters similar to Bulger's, asking for special consideration when calculating pension benefits, she said. But few precedents exist for whether to grant Bulger's requests, because so few state employees have contracts that provide annuities and housing allowances, she said.

"The deal that he had with UMass was certainly unique in many ways," Sharma said.

The retirement board will probably consider Bulger's request at its October meeting, she said. Republican Party officials said Cahill should stand up against the move, to limit the already large amount of tax dollars Bulger is receiving.

"I call on Treasurer Cahill to reject this greedy, last-minute pay grab," said Dominick Ianno, executive director of the state Republican Party. "The treasurer has a clear choice: Side with the taxpayers, or side with outgoing President Bulger."

Sharma said last night that the treasurer had not yet decided how to proceed. Besides Cahill, the pension board includes one member appointed by the treasurer, two elected by public retirees, and one selected by the other members of the board.

Cahill "is reviewing Bulger's application and his letter," Sharma said. "He can't comment on this until his general counsel and his legal team look at this."

Earlier this month, Bulger announced his resignation from the UMass post he had held since 1996, bringing to a close a colorful four decades in Massachusetts political life. His career began with his installation as a state representative in 1961 and extended through his leadership of the state Senate for a record 17 years.

This year, Governor Mitt Romney fought unsuccessfully to have the UMass president's job eliminated, and later joined Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly's call for Bulger to resign, as a congressional committee investigated Bulger's ties to his fugitive brother, James "Whitey" Bulger.

Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, said that Bulger's large pension is an argument for reining in the entire system.

"Our pension system is a disgrace," Anderson said. "It's a problem, but it's not just a Billy Bulger problem. It's a systemic problem. I can't think why the perks of the position would be part of the determination for the pension. It wouldn't even be considered in the private sector, and I think if there's any possible way to avoid doing this, they should."

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