Cooley as pension-reform poster boy

MAY 26, 2010


Recent news reports have mentioned our state public employee pension liabilities topping half a trillion dollars. This is an astronomical figure, but one that’s pretty hard for most people to understand. One easy way to make it easy to comprehend is to talk about one particular public employee who’s contributed to that liability – in this case, Los Angeles County District Attorney and Republican state Attorney General candidate Steve Cooley.

Much of the following is based on estimates that come from CalPERS and other government pension plans, but we do know – because the LA County Board of Supervisors approved it in 2008 – that Cooley currently makes $292,300 per year. We also know that the LA County pension formula for public safety personnel is 2.62 percent at 60. Put simply, Cooley (who’s worked for the county since 1974) could retire at 60 (he’s 63) making 94.32 percent (2.62 multiplied by 36 years of service) of his salary. That total — $275,697 – is Cooley’s annual DA pension.

Of course, his retirement pay may actually be higher. Cooley campaign spokesman Kevin Spillane didn’t return a phone call for comment by press time, but it’s possible to estimate some aspects of how much money Cooley will actually get when he finally retires as DA.

“Typically folks cash out their final year vacation and compensatory time off, and it’s added to final pay,” said Marcia Fritz, a certified public accountant and pension reform activist in Citrus Heights. “LA County’s CAFR [Comprehensive Annual Financial Report] indicates annual accruals are 20 days of vacation and 12 days of sick leave, plus he also gets to cash out management compensatory time off, generally 120 hours a year. He likely will cash out much more but pension rules limit what is included in final pay to one year’s accrual.”

To find out how much Cooley will actually collect in benefits, let’s say he retires this year, at age 63. Social Security Administration actuarial figures show that employees who retire at that age typically collect benefits for 18 years. Given Cooley’s annual benefit, that’s about $4.9 million.

Now we don’t know how much Cooley has actually contributed to his pension, but estimates provided by CalPERS indicates that it’s probably insignificant when compared to the taxpayer-backed benefits he’ll receive. CalPERS estimates that most public employees give between 5 percent to 7 percent of their salary to their pension. Erring on the side of generosity, let’s say that Cooley’s average salary over his 36 years of LA County service (we’ll ignore the five years he spent as a reserve office with the Los Angeles Police Department) came to $150,000. Contributing 7 percent of that average each year comes to just $378,000 – a tiny fraction of his total benefit payout.

Did we mention he can double dip, too? Currently, the AG earns $151,127 a year. When added to his $275,697 annual pension, that adds up to $426,824.

Now usually, employees who retire under CalPERS can’t then turn around and start working at another state job while still earning their pension. But Cooley’s DA pension is under the LA County system, whereas if he gets elected attorney general his new state pension will fall under the CalPERS system.

But an interesting quirk about CalPERS is that even if Cooley was under that pension management system when he got elected AG, it would still be legal for him to collect both his retirement and his salary. That’s because CalPERS has a special exemption for elected officials who get elected to different elected offices.

“[Y]ou can serve in an elective office without effect on your retirement allowance unless all or a portion of your retirement allowance is based on previous service in the same elected office,” notes the CalPERS publication Employment After Retirement.

So far, Cooley’s pension – and the larger issue of pension reform — has gotten virtually no traction in the AG’s race, though one small exception is Orange County Republican pundit Hugh Hewitt. On April 14 of this year he sent out a Twitter message saying, “When he reitres [sic], Steve Cooley, AG candidate, will collect $275K a year in taxpayer pension for the rest of his life. Issue?”

So far, it’s not.


Write a comment
  1. larry 62
    larry 62 26 May, 2010, 15:14

    After the rest of us taxpayers leave California, who will pay his obscene pension?

    Reply this comment
  2. OCO
    OCO 28 May, 2010, 06:36

    The system won’t pay b/c it is broke. The City of LA is going to file bankruptcy soon, as will Miami, Houston and San Diego….

    The train wreck is here…..

    Reply this comment
  3. orcadrvr
    orcadrvr 28 May, 2010, 07:20

    Deputy District Attorneys are not “public safety” members for retirement purposes. They have the same retirement plan (much less lucrative) as other county employees who are not police officers.
    I don’t know if there is an exception for the elected District Attorney that would put him in the category of “public safety”, but I doubt it. He spent many years as a Deputy District Attorney, and was therefore a member of the County retirement plan (non-safety), at least for those twenty years or so.
    I doubt it all suddenly was converted to a public safety plan.

    Reply this comment
  4. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 28 May, 2010, 08:49

    @ Orcadrvr –

    Don’t confuse them with facts. They already have their little minds made up.

    Reply this comment
  5. BIll
    BIll 28 May, 2010, 09:11

    Even if you use the non safety employee formula, the number is still obscene. You are just arguing how obscene. Civil service was never meant to be a promise to make millionaires.

    Every single public safety worker who work over 20 years and retires will have a million dollar pension. That is a fact.

    Public service for people like Cooley who double dip is nothing more than a scam. The Republicans need to distance themselves from people like Cooley if they want to keep what little credibility they have left.

    Reply this comment
  6. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 28 May, 2010, 12:17

    So Bill, I guess your argument is that no government retiree should ever have a pension that exceeds $40k per year? No matter what they’ve done, what their final pay was, or how long they performed their duties? Good luck with that.

    Reply this comment
  7. Vosht
    Vosht 28 May, 2010, 14:58

    Uh, yes? Especially when they contribute 0-10% of their own personal salary into the fund?

    Here’s how you tell if public pensions/salaries are bad. Take the equivalent private sector position skillset compensation. Subtract 20%, since the public sector needs, and if I might borrow from our brilliant leaders and their union puppet masters ‘the best and the brightest’. Is the public sector position still ridiculously more attractive? Yes? Guess what? YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. Period.

    But then again, I don’t blame idiots for being greedy and making stupid decisions. I blame lazy americans for not getting involved until it hits their wallets.

    Reply this comment
  8. RinSac
    RinSac 28 May, 2010, 16:53

    All of this ignores the fact that as part of an employee’s yearly compensation, the gov’t entity makes matching contributions equal to about 3x of the employee’s contribution. So, Cooley’s pension “account” likely has well over $1 million in base contributions. I know most on this site don’t believe this, but in years when there aren’t apocolyptic stock market meltdowns, the pension funds do very well, thank you very much. It’s the miracle of compound interest.

    Oh, and that $500 billion figure that folks throw around about CalPERS? Do your homework — it was cooked up by a few grad students at Stanford using hugely false assumptions … oh, and did you know their professor is a embittered ex Member of the Assembly?

    Reply this comment
  9. trubluvet
    trubluvet 31 May, 2010, 07:59

    Gee, Steve Cooley runs one of the largest law firms in the country. Why don’t you compare his pay and pension to the heads of even substantially smaller firms throughout the US. Cooley’s pay and pension would pale in comparison.

    Reply this comment
  10. OCO
    OCO 31 May, 2010, 17:55

    Even if you use the non safety employee formula, the number is still obscene. You are just arguing how obscene. Civil service was never meant to be a promise to make millionaires.

    Don’t confuse them with facts. They already have their little minds made up.

    Reply this comment
  11. OCO
    OCO 31 May, 2010, 17:58

    Gee, Steve Cooley runs one of the largest law firms in the country

    Hey Perry Mason Jr. the DA is NOT a “law firm”, it is the DA.

    And since you seem to think lawyers make so much money try to wrap your brain around the fact that in the real world Cooley would be making, AT BEST, $100K per year if he were in the private sector-working 80 hour work weeks with NO benefits.

    Reply this comment
  12. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 2 June, 2010, 08:42

    OCO spouting nonsense again. The DA is in fact a law firm. Denying that only proves that you’re completely clueless about the work they do in that office. In any comparable private law practice, Cooley would be making something approaching or equal to seven figures. Even in the current economy, first year associates in large firms are making $165k. Read California Lawyer or the ABA Journal for details.

    Reply this comment
  13. Dave
    Dave 2 June, 2010, 09:59

    If the DA is a Law firm then He should be dis-bared just like Harris hides evidence. Read

    Start on page 19 Paragraph 66

    Reply this comment
  14. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 2 June, 2010, 16:23

    If that can be proven, you’re certainly correct. However, making the claim in a lawsuit filing doesn’t necessarily make it so. You might try a little critical thinking sometime.

    Reply this comment
  15. Dave
    Dave 2 June, 2010, 22:38

    I have the proof. Straight from Steve Ipsen, but no one will touch the story yet. In fact tomorrow will tell the whole story. All I have been doing is critical thinking for the past 4 weeks and tomorrow we will see how well this is thought out. The story goes down in San Fernando Court at 8:30 AM when a motion will presented to Judge Cohen. Others will tell you there is no way he will grant the motion since he has denied every previous motion for the past 6 months. I myself, am optimistic, you see I know the law of averages is on our side. Not to mention we have one hell of a argument. The motion for a retrial will be made due to multiple conflict’s of interest the head prosecutor and his office have regarding this case. Ill give you a teaser. One of the conflicts directly involves The ADDA case and Brady material. Our argument, People v Eubanks (1996) 14 cal.4th 580, Long story short these conflicts are grounds for prosecutorial recusal of not only the deputy DA, but the entire prosecutors office. Looks like a change of venue or a dismissal. Stay tuned

    Reply this comment
  16. Chinhokelly
    Chinhokelly 13 September, 2010, 16:46

    You can extrapolate the salary of a civil service worker or elected official into a very large number, but in this case the salary is public information, legal and easily attainable by anyone who passes the State Bar, passes the application for deputy district attorney (or deputy public defender), promotes through the various ranks, attains double-digit civil service seniority and wins election to one of the highest positions in any county three times…so what does his salary have to do with his ability to put crooks in jail? Besides, someone who can run the largest DA Office in the country with the headaches of 1000 civil service-protected prosecutors, 300 civil service-protected cops and 500 civil service-protected support staff seems a bargain at $292K. Compare that to someone who runs one of the smaller DA offices of a major American city with NO CIVIL SERVICE PROTECTED staff for only $76K less.

    Reply this comment

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