Dennis Gianopolus, a top attorney for Calumet City’s municipal government, has been generous to local elected leaders in the south suburb, donating more than $30,000 over the years to the campaign funds of the mayor and several aldermen.
It turns out those elected leaders have been quite generous to Gianopolus: they quietly adopted a pension sweetener that could boost his taxpayer-subsidized retirement benefits by a staggering $2 million – or more – during his lifetime, the Better Government Association has learned.
Prompted by questions from the BGA, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund – the government-run pension system, often known as IMRF, that would handle Gianopolus’ payouts – has launched an investigation to see whether he should qualify for any pension, especially one topping an estimated $130,000 a year when he hits retirement age.
The BGA’s findings are significant for Calumet City taxpayers who could be on the hook for the lion’s share of the expenses. And they come amid a broader crisis for public-sector pension plans that – thanks to years of inattention, inadequate funding and overly generous benefits – threatens to saddle generations of Illinoisans with near-crippling debt.
Calumet City officials insist the sweetener was part of an honest effort to lower upfront attorney costs, and wasn’t intended to serve as a favor for Gianopolus, a friend and political supporter of Mayor Michelle Qualkinbush.
Gianopolus became city prosecutor in 2001 and corporation counsel in 2003. At the time, the prosecutor job was a salaried employee position that made him eligible for an IMRF pension. And Gianopolus was classified as an “independent contractor” for the corporation counsel post, which carried an hourly salary and no pension.
But in 2010, Qualkinbush and the City Council, without fanfare, made the corporation counsel job a salaried position that paid $240,000 annually, while officials reclassified the city prosecutor as an independent contractor making about the same rate of pay as before: roughly $25,000 a year.
This translated into a potential windfall for the 52-year-old Gianopolus, who also serves as Chicago Heights’ city prosecutor and runs his own private law firm in Lansing. If he retires at 65, his starting pension through Calumet City would be $132,000, assuming his salary remains flat and income he collects from other municipal clients isn’t included, according to an analysis by the BGA and IMRF. Over 20 years his total benefit could be more than $2.6 million; after 10 years it could top $1.3 million.
Had his pension been based on his prosecutor salary, his starting annual benefit would have been about $13,750 if the same criteria was applied. Over 20 years the payments would total more than $275,000 – or more than $2.3 million less than he now stands to receive. (This excludes service from Chicago Heights, which would boost his pension even further.)
Calumet City officials say the reclassification was part of an effort to reduce legal spending – not sweeten the attorney’s pension.
“The city was intent on limiting costs,” Gianopolus says. “They’re paying less than what they were paying. At the end of the day, it works to the benefit of the city.”
Gianopolus’ total compensation – including salary, health benefits and pension contributions – is not expected to exceed $338,000 this year, less than the average of $399,000 he was paid from 2007 to 2011, according to records obtained from the south suburb under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
However, while it appears taxpayers are saving money in the short term, Gianopolus’ compensation isn’t fixed and could be increased down the road.
Typically, part-time employees and outside vendors don’t receive pensions. Attorney Burt Odelson, for example, also works for Calumet City but as an independent contractor, and he will not receive a pension from the suburb, he says.
City officials maintain that Gianopolus is not a vendor like Odelson but rather an “officer” and a salaried employee and therefore entitled to a pension.
Gianopolus has given more than $32,000 to campaign funds tied to Qualkinbush and four city council members, including Ald. Thaddeus Jones who also is a Democratic state representative, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Gianopolus says he donates money to the officials because he’s from town and believes in their leadership.
Qualkinbush didn’t return messages. Jones says the contributions didn’t earn the attorney “special treatment.”
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter. To reach him call (312) 821-9035 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.