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BOARD TAKES BACK BENEFITS BOOST FOR TOM JONES

BOARD TAKES BACK BENEFITS BOOST FOR TOM JONES

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There was a flurry of activity in Shelby County government last week involving Tom Jones, a top aide to three former county mayors who pleaded guilty last year to federal embezzlment charges. Jones is scheduled to report to a federal correctional institution in Forrest City, Arkansas, this month to begin serving his one-year term. But the latest controversy, which featured the personal intervention of Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, was over Jones’ retirement benefits and his reinstatement to a county job for three days earlier this year. The details are complicated, but the bottom line is that Jones was put back on county employment roles for three days in May and, because of that, was in a position to double his retirement benefit from approximately $1,595 a month to $3,090 per month. Wharton apparently became aware of this in the last two weeks and decided that the matter needed to be presented to the Shelby County Retirement Board at its monthly meeting on August 3rd. Following presentations by Wharton, Chief Administrative Officer John Fowlkes, and board chairman and attorney Susan Callison at the meeting, the board voted 7-1 to rescind Jones’ higher benefits package. Jones was notified this week that the Retirement Board “has determined that an improper determination was made in the processing of your pension benefit.” He can request an appeal hearing. There is no indication of any deception on his part, and all the rights he invoked are available to county employees. The error appears to be on the part of the Retirement Board. Fowlkes said Wharton didn’t know what was going on until about a week ago. And it was not until Monday evening that Wharton decided to bring up the issue at the Retirement Board meeting the next morning. Jones’ paperwork was processed by Human Resources Administrator Janet Shipman, and Manager of Retirement Waverly Seward. “In the mayor’s view, it was not an administrative act,” said Fowlkes. “It was significant enough to require the board to review the facts.” Jones worked for the county from 1976 until 2002 and was a participant in the county retirement system for nearly 24 years. For most of that time, he was head of public affairs and dealt with reporters and wrote speeches for mayors Roy Nixon, Bill Morris, and Jim Rout. He took on more responsibilities under Morris and Rout and served on numerous boards. He was heavily involved in the planning of the FedEx Forum, among other projects. In August of 2002, one week before the end of his second term, Rout announced that Jones had been suspended for questions involving his use of county credit cards. Wharton did not reappoint Jones. In 2003, Jones pleaded guilty to federal and state charges of embezzling an amount between $50,000 and $100,000. In the county pension system, 55 is an important age threshold for a higher pension. Jones was not yet 55 when he was suspended in 2002, but he was over 55 when he was “rehired” this year. Early in his career with county government, Jones held a Civil Service job. Under Civil Service provisions, he applied this year for reinstatement to his Civil Service job, exercising what is known as fallback rights. Documents show Shipman wrote to Jones that she would “being the process of identifying a position for your return to employment within Shelby County government.” She also wrote that due to his federal and state convictions, the county would move to suspend him immediately upon his return to employment. Jones was placed back on the employment roles on May 28, although Fowlkes said he did not report to work or draw any pay. On June 17th, Seward notified him by letter that the Retirement Board “has approved your application for service retirement benefits” of $3,090 per month, less deductions for insurance. On Monday, Wharton received a four-page letter from attorney Susan Callison regarding Jones’ status in the retirement system and whether a change in his status should have been submitted to the board for a vote. It isn’t clear when Wharton asked for the legal opinion. “It is my opinion that Mr. Jones’ pension should have been calculated based upon the type of pension that the Board approved for him-- the deferred vested pension, and that, therefore, an error was made and should be corrected,” Callison wrote.

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