Chicago ex-alderman charged with bribery might keep pension

Chicago ex-alderman charged with bribery might keep pension

Ex-Alderman Danny Solis handed federal prosecutors the top politicians in Chicago and the Statehouse to get out of bribery charges. His deal could let him keep his pension – a ploy too common in Illinois as voters consider Amendment 1’s potential for protecting pension abuse.

Former Chicago Ald. Danny Solis was charged with bribery for soliciting $15,000 for a zoning change, but his cooperation with federal prosecutors may let him avoid the guilty plea that could send him to prison and cost him his pension.

A federal judge has ruled to delay prosecution of Solis’ bribery charge until April 2025, which means he can continue to collect his annual pension of $100,573. If he avoids a guilty plea, Solis will continue to enjoy his six-figure pension plus annual 3% cost-of-living adjustments.

Solis paid $297,027 in retirement contributions until he left office in 2019. He will have recouped that investment this year.

When federal investigators confronted Solis sometime between 2014 and 2016, he agreed to cooperate and wore a wire to record conversations with elected leaders. Solis’ cooperation led to indictments against the two most powerful men in Chicago and Springfield: Ald. Ed Burke and former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. Solis is expected to testify against Burke and Madigan.

Solis is one of a dozen Illinois Democrats either currently in office or retired who are under significant scrutiny from federal investigations while either drawing their pensions or expected to receive large pensions. In many cases pension payments aren’t stopped until a lawmaker is actually convicted of a crime: they can continue to collect at taxpayer expense while awaiting trial.

This isn’t the only form of pension abuse. Some top-dollar pensioners take part in double dipping. Double dipping occurs when public employees can retire at an early age, draw their full pension and immediately take another job – significantly increasing their taxpayer-funded income through their monthly pension benefit and another high salary.

John and Ellen Correll are a husband and wife double-dipping duo who were recently highlighted by Wirepoints. Both retired and then shared the role of superintendent at Skokie School District 73.5 during the 2020-2021 school year, earning each of them $90,000 on top of the pension payouts they began collecting in 2019. They did the same thing the year before at Antioch Consolidated School District 34. John Correll’s current pension is over $210,000 and Ellen Correll’s is just under $80,000.

Other top-dollar pensioners receive the benefits of pension spiking. Pension spiking occurs when public leaders approach retirement and are given large pay increases to boost future pension payouts. Former Metra CEO Donald Orseno received two significant raises in years leading up to his retirement in 2017, including one that was granted retroactively.

After a single year on the job in 2015, he received a $26,500 boost to his $262,500 salary. In 2016, he was granted another $28,000, upping his salary to $317,500. Orseno is currently receiving the largest Metra pension, getting $15,752 per month from taxpayers.

Pension abuses have been common in the state across numerous sectors. Although just as egregious in some cases, many abuses, such as double-dipping and pension spiking, are actually legal and either were allowed by the rules of the current pension systems or continue to be allowed.

This activity not only takes advantage of taxpayers, but also gives Illinois pension recipients a bad rap for growing pension problems.

Taxpayers are staring down $317 billion dollars in pension debt, even though pensions eat up 26% of the state’s operating budget. They are a significant reason why Illinois has the nation’s highest state and local tax rates, second-highest property taxes, and second-highest gas taxes.

The pension clause in the state’s constitution states pension benefits cannot be “diminished or impaired,” leaving no way to reform current benefits without passing a constitutional pension reform amendment. But the power of the language in the state’s constitution works both ways.

While legislation has been passed in order to curtail these types of abuses, Amendment 1 threatens to override protections from pension abusers.

The language of Amendment 1 could let pension exploitation become commonplace by granting broad new powers and bargaining rights to unions. Illinois already struggles with outsized government union power driving corruption, and Amendment 1 could make it harder to root out public corruption.

That’s because Amendment 1 would elevate government union collective bargaining agreements above Illinois state law. State laws governing investigations, ethics and conduct, pensions, job qualifications, and other issues would be overpowered by union bargaining agreements, with no way to pull back on that power were it to become enshrined in the Illinois Constitution.

Illinoisans are tired of public servants who think the public serves them, so before Nov. 8 voters need to take a close look at what Amendment 1 would mean in a state with nation-leading pension debt and corruption.

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