SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Convicted of extortion and illegal gambling, Savannah’s former police chief will continue to collect a pension worth nearly $130,000 a year while he serves 7 ½ years in federal prison.
That comes to more than $970,000 before taxes.
Some City Council members have called for revoking or slashing the retirement benefits of former Savannah-Chatham County Police Chief Willie Lovett, who was sentenced by a U.S. District Court judge earlier this month. But City Attorney Brooks Stillwell told council members Thursday a state law that forces convicted public employees to surrender a chunk of their pensions can’t be applied to the ex-chief.
City officials may ask Georgia’s attorney general for a second opinion.
“We all agree, as does the community, that this is a miscarriage of justice,” said City Council member Mary Ellen Sprague. “For him to get such a huge pension is just incredibly troubling.”
During his trial last fall, prosecutors said Lovett pocketed more than $70,000 from operators of carnival trailers used as a front for illegal gambling in Savannah during holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Day. Lovett was accused of taking cash in exchange for letting the gambling trailers stay open for a decade. That included Lovett’s four years as police chief, until he retired abruptly in September 2013. The ex-chief was indicted about nine months later.
Before taxes, Lovett’s pension is worth $129,487 a year. That’s the highest sum Savannah has ever paid to a retired city employee, said city spokesman Bret Bell. The figure is derived from Lovett’s average salary during his last years in office, about $168,000, in addition to the 41 years he worked for the police department.
The former chief’s longevity is also protecting Lovett from having to return at least a portion of his pension to City Hall and taxpayers. Georgia law says public workers convicted of crimes related to their jobs lose retirement benefits equal to three times the amount of the cost of their wrongdoing. However, the law only applies to public employees hired after the law took effect in 1985.
Lovett joined the Savannah police force in 1972. Even if he had been hired after 1985, the state law for more than two decades applied only to public workers convicted under Georgia law — not under federal law, as Lovett was. The Legislature closed that loophole in 2008.
Why is there a free pass for state and local government workers employed before the pension forfeiture laws were enacted? Once public workers are hired and guaranteed certain pension benefits, they can’t legally be taken away later.
“The simple answer is it’s basically a contract issue,” said Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association. “You cannot change the rules to their detriment.”
At his trial, Lovett testified he never sold his badge in exchange for turning a blind eye to gambling. His attorneys said the gambling trailers’ owners merely paid for security from off-duty police officers who didn’t know they were breaking the law.
Savannah officials said about 6.6 percent of Lovett’s salary went into the city’s pension fund during his years with the police department.
Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson asked the city attorney Thursday to seek a second opinion on the ex-chief’s pension from Attorney General Sam Olens. Other council members suggested filing a lawsuit to recoup city resources Lovett used for criminal gain.
“There may be nothing we can do,” the mayor said.