Attorney for MFPD Local 1889 calls for grand jury investigation

By MIKE ANTHONY

An attorney representing Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters is calling for a grand jury investigation of the current administration of the Mehlville Fire Protection District’s pension plan.

“We are calling for a grand jury investigation of the current administration of this pension plan as to prevent any unlawful conversion of pension assets of the men and women of the Mehlville Fire Protection District who are participants of the plan,” according to a statement by Local 1889 attorney John Goffstein.

Goffstein’s statement on behalf of Local 1889 and the Employee Pension Committee was read last week by Board of Directors Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr. during a Pension Committee meeting. The Pension Committee is comprised of the district’s three-member Board of Directors and current and retired employees.

The March 9 special meeting was called to discuss the proposed termination of the district’s existing defined benefit pension plan and the proposed establishment of a defined contribution pension plan. In a March 7 memorandum, Aaron Hilmer, Board of Directors chairman and Pension Committee chairman, recommended terminating the defined benefit pension plan on March 31 and establishing a defined contribution pension plan with a base contribution rate of 8 percent on April 1.

“Contribution rates should be tiered at 9 percent, 10 percent and 11 percent for 15 years, 20 years and 25 years, respectfully of service. The district will eliminate the $20 per employee, per pay period contribution effective March 31, 2006,” Hilmer’s memo stated.

But Pension Committee member Dave Andrews, speaking on behalf of current and retired employees on the committee, said last week they are opposed to any changes to the pension plan.

“We want the written record of tonight’s special meeting to clearly state that we are extremely opposed to any action to change our fire district’s defined benefit pension plan to a defined contribution pension plan, and this also includes leaving our present disability plan totally in place,” Andrews said.

Local 1889 filed a lawsuit against the district’s three board members — Hilmer, Ottoline and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman — in late June, asking the court to prohibit the board from implementing a disability benefit contract with Standard Insurance and eliminating current disability benefits from the district’s existing pension plan.

St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Barbara Crancer granted a preliminary injunction in early August prohibiting enactment of the proposed changes to the district’s disability plan. Crancer ruled that the Board of Directors did not follow the proper procedures to change retirement benefits under state law and the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. She also ruled that the Board of Directors did not violate the state’s Meet and Confer Law or the Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law.

On Feb. 24, Crancer granted the board’s motion for a summary judgment, dissolving the preliminary injunction and dismissing Local 1889’s suit.

But Goffstein’s firm since has filed mo-tions asking Crancer to set aside her ruling granting the board’s motion for summary judgment and enter an order extending the preliminary injunction, pending a new trial. The judge has yet to rule on the mo- tions, and the Pension Committee is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. today — March 16 — at the district’s headquarters, 11020 Mueller Road, Green Park.

Referring to Crancer’s Feb. 24 ruling, Goffstein in his statement contends, “… The court made some preliminary entries and orders pertaining to the current pension plan. This matter is far from over and has not been resolved.”

Goffstein’s statement alleges several issues, including, “It is our professional opinion and belief that it is an unlawful conversion and theft to take administrative expenses for the payment of legal fees and other administrative costs from the assets of the pension plan and to pay same into general district revenues. These administrative fees should be paid from district revenues. Under no circumstances should funds previously paid for those purposes be termed after the fact as a ‘loan’ for placement to district revenues.

“Directors Hilmer and Stegman have unlawfully commingled funds, as evidenced by the plan’s minutes and the deposition testimony of (Comptroller) Jeff Geisler, in secret session and/or in violation of plan documents. These funds must be immediately returned as pension assets,” according to the statement.

In her ruling, Crancer wrote, “… The court finds that plaintiffs’ allegations of commingling of assets is serious, but unsubstantiated by any witness or competent evidence in the filings before this court.”

Attorney Mathew Hoffman, who represents the fire district, said, “In my mind, all issues with regard to commingling have been addressed with the court and substantiated by the district’s comptroller, Jeff Geisler.”

Goffstein’s statement also alleges, “For the record, from what I read in the public newspapers, rather than praising the brave firefighters and paramedics in what was once the best fire protection district in the state of Missouri, Director Hilmer specifically sought to disparage the noble men and women of the Mehlville Fire Protection District. It is our belief that Mr. Hilmer’s actions to date constitute a civil wrongdoing and a criminal violation of law and are evil in their intent. If this unlawful action does not stop at once, we will seek his removal from office. He is a disgrace to the public service.”

Asked about Goffstein’s call for a grand jury investigation, Hoffman said, “For that process to occur, it must be initiated by the prosecutor’s office of St. Louis County. To my knowledge, no criminal process or investigation has been initiated nor is any such action warranted regarding the clear authority given to the Board of Directors by the Missouri State Legislature.”

He also said, “The implication of any type of criminal allegation that has been suggested is, in my opinion, inappropriate in that no board member is a beneficiary or participant in the pension plan.”

Regarding Goffstein’s statement, Hilmer said, “I think Mr. Goffstein’s statements need to be looked at in the proper context of his previous statements — for one, concerning South County Fire Alarm. He pledged legal action to any changes in their pension plan. On Feb. 28, the defined benefit plan froze and on March 1, the defined contribution plan started — no legal action. He claimed we could not change the disability plan at Mehlville. The disability plan was changed and a judge upheld the power of the board to make those changes.”