Daily News of Los Angeles

January 20, 2002


City Councilman Dennis Zine took an unpaid leave of absence from the Los Angeles Police Department during his first six months in elected office to enhance his city pension by $13,803 a year despite a state law barring such practices, the Daily News has learned.

The City Attorney's Office cleared Zine to delay his retirement from the LAPD back in July, unaware that state law says a city employee must resign or be terminated upon being sworn into office. Zine took office as the west San Fernando Valley's councilman July 2.

By delaying retirement for six months, Zine's pension jumped from $65,797 to $79,600 a year. Zine made an issue of his pay during last year's campaign by promising repeatedly to donate $25,000 of his annual $133,051 council salary to local charities.

When questions arose last week about the ploy, the city's senior counsel, Frederick N. Merkin, invoked the ``home rule'' provision of the state constitution to assert state law doesn't apply because Los Angeles is a charter city.

``The way this statute is written is flawed,'' Merkin said in an interview.

A spokesman for Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Nathan Barankin, declined comment on Merkin's reading of the law. He said, however, that the most recent Attorney General's Office opinion on home rule is that charter cities like Los Angeles must comply with ``laws that pertain to matters of statewide concern.''

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said the deal ``sounds very sleazy to us,'' and that it warrants further investigation.

``This is very troubling,'' Coupal said. ``This is another example of the endemic pension abuses, which are very difficult for the taxpayers to understand, but that constitute some of the greatest rip-offs of taxpayers going on out there.''

Zine said he didn't know about the state prohibition until recently and that the City Attorney's Office did not mention it in a previous advice letter in July. He said he received an e-mail a few days ago alerting him that someone was looking into the circumstances of his pension and that he then asked the City Attorney's Office to look into the state law.

``As a cop of 32 years plus, I'm not going to do anything illegal,'' Zine said. ``All this was done with the concurrence of the department (LAPD) and the city attorney. If it's a violation, the city attorney gave me bad advice.''

City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo was in Washington, D.C., where he was to speak before the Democratic National Committee, and could not be reached for comment Friday.

``I didn't do this whole thing for money,'' added Zine, who said he's already given $9,750 to a variety of community groups out of his council salary. ``It's not like I'm a greedy b------ trying to rip off the taxpayers.''

Zine, 54, was an LAPD sergeant assigned as a motorcycle cop who became a director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the police union, eight years ago.

He said he was motivated to stay on active status without drawing a paycheck largely so he could retire the same day his son, Christopher, graduates from the Police Academy. With his son's graduation now put off until April, he said, he's asked that his unpaid leave also be extended until then, saying it won't change his pension.

``My concern was to pass the baton on,'' Zine said.

In adopting the law that requires employees to resign or be terminated when they are elected to office, legislators said it was important to ``prevent employees of an agency from voting on issues which fundamentally impact their employment.'' Merkin said the statute is flawed in that it is not written to prevent specific conflicts of interest.

Zine was sworn into office about seven months shy of 33 years in the LAPD, but more importantly needing to remain on active status until Jan. 2, 2002, to be eligible for a better pension option approved by voters as a charter amendment in June, the same time he was elected.

Before the change, Zine was entitled to 70 percent of his last month's pay annualized, which would be $65,797. Under the new rules intended to retain veteran officers longer by allowing their pensions to continue to rise, he was eligible for 88.1 percent of his last average annual salary, which was about $90,000. The change took effect Jan. 2.

Zine also could draw retirement money from the city employees retirement system if he serves at least five years on the council, said Oscar Peters, general manager of the system.

Merkin said he didn't know about the state statute when he advised Zine previously that he could go on unpaid leave to boost his pension payments. On Thursday, he wrote Zine that ``on the face of that (state) statute, if it were to apply, you would be deemed to have resigned from your police officer employment when you were sworn in as a Council member.''

But Merkin opined that the matter is a ``municipal affair,'' beyond the reach of the state's statutory authority.

``There can be little doubt that the qualifications of the City's elected officials implicate a municipal affair,'' Merkin wrote, though he acknowledged that despite some supporting authority, there is no case directly on point.

Merkin argued that the statute wasn't properly crafted to prevent conflicts of interest between an elected official and his or her public post, and should have targeted specific conflict situations instead of requiring resignation or termination of the employee.

He also said the state statute illegally impinges on the city's rights to set up conditions for city employment.

Merkin said if public officials are concerned about the adequacy of the ethics laws regarding conflict of interest, ``it's theirs to consider.''

Zine said he's just tried to do what is right, giving to charity and living a ``simple, frugal life.''

``I didn't do this whole thing for money,'' Zine said.