Some at Bristol jail got boost in pension

Sheriff’s hires gained windfall

Former state correction commissioner Kathleen Dennehy is among those who have left the employ of Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson with an enhanced pension. Former state correction commissioner Kathleen Dennehy is among those who have left the employ of Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson with an enhanced pension. (Robert Spencer/ Associated Press)
By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / March 9, 2010

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For 22 years, Robert Tweedie served as a part-time, on-call pharmacist for the New Bedford Board of Health, making $2,200 a year.

Then, in 2001, he took a $77,000-a-year pharmacist job in the office of Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. After working exactly three years - public retirees’ pensions are based on their top three years’ salary - Tweedie retired, boosting his pension from $1,171 a year to $46,781.

Tweedie said he was not aware, when he took the job, that it would increase his pension dramatically.

“I didn’t know I was going to get anything,’’ he said in an interview. But, he said, “I was fortunate to be able to work there.’’

Tweedie is one of many current and former employees of Hodgson’s who have greatly enhanced their retirement benefits by working for the sheriff, a Globe review of payroll and pension records found.

Some employees transferred from other public agencies or private companies, working just long enough to qualify for the most generous pensions allowed under state law. Others were given titles that automatically qualified them for richer benefits, even though those titles are supposed to be reserved for jobs deemed dangerous.

Hodgson, a tough-talking Republican renowned for trying to charge inmates for room and board, acknowledged that some employees have seen their pensions balloon as a result of their service in his office. But, he said, he plays no role in awarding benefits, and the employees are simply taking what is available to them under law.

Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature tightened pension rules last year, but loopholes remain.

“The Legislature created the law, not me,’’ Hodgson said in an interview. “If there’s any reform anyone should suggest, it’s not in my world. We have to conform to state policies and procedures and the laws of the Commonwealth.’’

But Hodgson himself has given out an unusually high number of special job titles that automatically qualify employees for bigger pensions. Many current and former employees of the Bristol County sheriff’s office have been designated assistant deputy superintendents, putting them in the most lucrative pension category.

This category, meant for correction officers, police officers, and others whose hazardous duties often force them to cut their careers short, allows employees to retire with a generous benefit at age 55, 10 years earlier than most other public employees. In corrections, the category, known as Group 4, generally covers employees who have regular contact with inmates.

Under Hodgson’s administration, employees with administrative, clerical, and even construction duties have received this classification, and many have retired with the more lucrative benefits.

In recent years, Hodgson has appointed assistant deputy superintendents for construction renovation, information services, human resources, support services, policy development and compliance, capital projects, finance administration, employee health programs, public programs, and food services.

Hodgson said the assistant deputy superintendents were given the titles because of their responsibilities, not to increase their pensions.

“If someone is an ADS, they’ve got people working under them and have a high degree of responsibility in the command,’’ he said. “I don’t look at it like, ‘You might be able to retire in Group 4.’ ’’

A succession of employees have retired from Hodgson’s office with enhanced benefits.

One was former state correction commissioner Kathleen Dennehy, who, after being terminated by Patrick in 2007, took a job with Hodgson as superintendent of security and operations. She retired 18 months later at age 54 with a pension of more than $106,000, more than $45,000 a year higher than it would have been if she had retired as correction commissioner. If she collects her pension for another 25 years, Dennehy will have received in excess of a million dollars in additional benefits.

Dennehy did not return calls seeking comment, but according to Hodgson, she was forced to retire because of an illness in the family.

William Walsh worked in Bristol County Juvenile Court for 25 years, then Brockton District Court for four years, before being hired by Hodgson as assistant deputy superintendent for community corrections in June 2003. Two years later, he retired with an annual pension of about $50,000. If he had retired from his court job, he would have received roughly half as much.

Walsh said that he left Brockton because he feared being laid off and that he retired from the Bristol sheriff’s office after two major operations.

“My doctor said: ‘Working in that job, you don’t realize how much stress is leading to your condition. See if you can retire,’ ’’ Walsh said in an interview. “I wasn’t into milking the system. I worked 32 years for the government. I left because the doctors said to.’’

Such pension deals, which cost taxpayers millions of dollars, could damage the image Hodgson has cultivated as a fiscal hawk. The Republican, who is facing two challengers this year, tried to charge inmates $5 a day, but the Supreme Judicial Court rejected the plan. He has also drawn notice by limiting meal portions, switching from orange juice to Tang, and eliminating coffee. He complained last year that he was running out of money and might have to ask the National Guard to run the jail.

Hodgson asserted in the interview that he has saved taxpayers millions of dollars by running a streamlined agency that has operated in the black every year, despite state cutbacks.

Last year, a number of Hodgson’s employees, fearful that they would lose their special benefits, retired before a new state law took effect. That law, which merged sheriffs’ departments with the state, would have required them to file with the Massachusetts Retirement Board instead of the Bristol County board, subjecting their retirement applications to tougher scrutiny.

Nicola Favorito, executive director of the State Retirement Board, said that in deciding which benefits retiring employees are entitled to, the board not only looks at their titles, but their duties. If they have limited contact with inmates, he said, they could be bounced out of Group 4.

“We want to know what they do and do they have the title legitimately,’’ he said. “Because there is so much variation in the sheriffs’ offices for positions such as ADS, we have to look on a case-by-case basis. The more the [employee’s] correctional responsibilities, the more it suggests Group 4 is warranted.’’

Hodgson acknowledged that many assistant deputy superintendents scrambled to retire before the state takeover, but he said the same thing happened in other sheriffs’ departments that merged with the state.

The pension law that took effect last year would make it more difficult for workers, such as Tweedie, to use their service in unpaid or low-paid positions toward their retirement benefits. Effective July 1 last year, only the years that workers earn $5,000 or more are included in the calculations.

A bill filed by the Patrick administration seeks to limit the proliferation of Group 4 benefits. Under the plan, retirees’ pensions would be prorated according to the years they spent in different pension classifications.