Union Lobbyists Exploit Loophole in Pension Cash-in

Two lobbyists with no teaching experience were allowed to count their years as union employees toward a state teacher pension once they served a single day of subbing in 2007, an investigation has found, writes Ray Long and Jason Grotto at the Chicago Tribune.

Steven Preckwinkle, the political director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and fellow union lobbyist David Piccioli were the only people who took advantage of a loophole in the legislation that enabled union officials to get into the state teachers pension fund.

They just had to quickly obtaining teaching certificates before the bill was signed into law.

Over the course of their lifetimes, both men stand to receive more than a million dollars each from a state pension fund that has less than half of the assets it needs to cover promises made to tens of thousands of public school teachers, write Long and Grotto.

A spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers emphasized that the lobbyists' actions were legal and that they made "individual decisions."

With billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities, the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System is one of several pension plans that are in debt as state government reels in a fiscal crisis, and the revelation that one day of substitute teaching allowed officials from a state teachers union to tap into an ailing public pension fund is yet another example of how the Illinois pension system has been manipulated for political purposes and personal gain.

"The people that are on the inside and understand the process are going to be able to make the system work for their advantage," said Kent Redfield, who teaches political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.

"That this legislation got a hearing and got considered and passed is a reflection of that close relationship between the IFT and the Democratic leadership… It feeds into the cynicism about all the deals, that it's an insider's game and that the system is rigged."

Preckwinkle, 59, stands to receive about $2.8 million by the time he turns 78, about $3.8 million if he retires next year and lives until he's 84. Piccioli, 61, stands to collect about $1.1 million by age 78, about $1.7 million if he lives until 84, according to an analysis by the Tribune and WGN-TV.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers and the lobbyists have made payments totaling $134,703 to the teachers fund to cover Preckwinkle's contributions to date and $98,701 to address Piccioli's contributions to the system. Records showed Preckwinkle still has to purchase most, if not all, of his prior years of union service, but Piccioli has paid for his.

The union said it does not help the two lobbyists pay for their prior years of union service that they can count toward the Teachers' Retirement System.

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