John Bills Jr. a former city transportation department official at the center of a red-light camera scandal, lost a six figure annual pension last month after a federal jury convicted him on multiple counts of bribery and extortion. But such pension forfeitures may be more the exception than the rule in a city with a well-honed reputation for corruption.
Only nine former city employees have had pensions terminated by the Municipal Employees Annuity and Benefit Fund for felony convictions between 2006 and today, according to records obtained by the Better Government Association through an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request. And one of those termination actions was later overturned by a court.
Some of the forfeitures that have stuck include charges related to the scandal plagued Hired Truck program which more than a decade ago saw transport work steered to politically connected firms, as well as another scandal tied to the Department of Building and Zoning dubbed Operation Crooked Code.
But the case of Anthony Ritacco, a seasonal cement mixer who worked 21 years for the Department of Transportation, illustrates how narrow a needle pension officials are required to thread to justify the termination of retirement benefits for corrupt city workers. State law says benefits will not, “be paid to any person who is convicted of any felony relating to or arising out of or in connection with his municipal service.”
Ritacco was convicted of running a cocaine ring between 2002 and 2005. The MEABF board ruled him ineligible to collect his pension based on that conviction when Ritacco applied for his retirement after his release from prison. Ritacco appealed, contending that he made his drug deals outside of work hours in his own car with his own cell phone. A court agreed, restoring his retirement benefits in 2015.
In the case of Bills, the board voted unanimously to end his pension Sept. 22 after he was convicted of charges including bribery, mail, wire and tax fraud and extortion. The original suspension of his pension was first reported by the BGA.
Pension benefits paid to Bills’ ex-wife Margaret were also suspended.
The defense offered by Bills included a resolution presented by aldermen Edward Burke and Marty Quinn, signed by mayor Rahm Emanuel upon Bills’ retirement.
“I contributed to this pension and worked for 24 consecutive years prior to and without any incident,” Bills wrote in a letter to the board.
Bills’ pension was estimated at $111,800 in 2016 before its termination, and he collected almost $550,000 since his retirement in 2011.
Bills will be required to report to prison before 2 p.m. November 28 for his 10-year sentence. The court recommended Bills serve his term in Florida or South Dakota. He will be required to serve one year of supervised release after his term.
Other pensioners whose MEABF payments were stopped after felony conviction include:
Jon Burge, a former Chicago Police Commander connected to a campaign of torture in the 1970s and 80s, is scheduled to collect more than $50,000 from the Chicago Police pension this year. Burge was allowed to collect his pension after conviction because the board deadlocked 4-4 on whether his crimes were committed in the course of his municipal duty.
Chicago set up a $5.5 million fund in 2015 to pay victims of Burge’s torture, and the city spent close to $100 million on legal fees and settlements related to his deeds.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit against Burge in 2014 to end his pension benefits. The Illinois Supreme Court decided that Madigan did not have the legal authority to challenge the pension board’s ruling. A law passed after that decision, will allow the A.G. to challenge the pension status of pensioners convicted of a felony, but will not apply to Burge.
View the documents from Bills’ pension hearing below.