By Kevin Hogencamp
When Teena Skipper became a widow 11 months into her marriage, city of Albany staffers told her they had some bad news regarding survivor’s benefits from her husband’s pension.
Teena Skipper was told that she was not eligible to receive benefits from her husband Bill Skipper’s pension because the couple had not been married a full year.
But, unbeknownst to Teena Skipper until this month, there was some good news – a matter of public record — that should have been shared with her.
In March, then-human resources director Mary LaMont discovered that due to an oversight in the management of Bill Skipper’s pension benefit, Skipper – a retired public works employee — had been underpaid by at least $112,000 plus interest over the past 19 years.
According to public records and audiotaped recordings reviewed by The Albany Journal, LaMont was the lone voice advocating that Bill Skipper’s estate be paid because, she says, “the gentleman was entitled to it.”
Six months later and two months following LaMont’s resignation, Bill Skipper’s estate, whose only beneficiary is Teena Skipper, hasn’t been notified by the city administration or Pension Board of the debt owed to it. City Manager Alfred Lott won’t answer The Albany Journal’s questions and is illegally withholding public records pertaining to the matter.
LaMont says what apparently was first an honest mistake is now theft by deception. The city and the Pension Board is required by law to act in the best interest of employees and retirees and can be held liable for breach of their fiduciary responsibility. If the Bill Skipper estate’s money continues to be withheld, city officials could be charged with theft by deception, a felony, LaMont says.
Indeed, Pension Board Chairman Phil Roberson says that while the survivors’ benefit issue is still under consideration by the Pension Board, if the underpayment is a pending issue, it is a city administration issue – not a Pension Board matter. But public records show that the Pension Board was to be notified of the underpayment and the board’s obligation to pay the debit, but that city staffers withheld the information.
Records also show that Roberson, who is the city’s public works director, and three other Pension Board members — city commissioners Bob Langstaff and Jon Howard and Deputy Fire Chief Ron Rowe – have been apprised of the matter.
Teena Skipper says she doesn’t understand why the city won’t settle up with her husband’s estate and hasn’t communicated with her about the matter.
“I just want them to do the right thing and pay the money,” Teena Skipper, of Sylvester said. “This has gone on long enough. It’s to the point where it’s pretty awful what they are doing.”
Public records and audiotaped recordings of meetings at city hall on the matter reveal that Roberson and other high-level city staffers, the city attorney, and a private attorney put the matter in Lott’s hands. Lott refuses to answer The Albany Journal’s inquiries and in violation of state law, Lott is withholding some public records pertaining to Bill Skipper’s pension, including e-mails and spreadsheets providing details about the amount Bill Skipper’s estate is due, among other records.
Bill Skipper died in February of pneumonia at age 84, 23 years after retiring and 19 years after turning 65.
“Basically, I got the impression everyone believed I was at fault for discovering and reporting the underpayment as opposed to the Pension Board taking responsibility for their mistake,” LaMont said of discovering that Bill Skipper had been underpaid. “In other words, as long as the City has no official notice of an underpayment, they are not required to act in regard to any underpayment. My insistence that Mrs. Skipper be notified was highly frowned upon. Needless to say, once I left the City, the matter was immediately forgotten by all involved.”
According to records and tape recordings, the error in the monthly payment Bill Skipper received was apparently due to an oversight during the clerical handling of a back injury he sustained on the job. Bill Skipper received Workers’ Compensation benefits before retiring due to his disability and when he turned 65, as a fully vested retired employee Bill Skipper’s monthly benefit payments should have increased from $284 a month to $904 a month, but did no, records show.
Public records show that the underpayment, combined with annual cost-of-living increases received by city retirees, amounts to about $112,000. Plus, Bill Skipper’s estate is due interest, according to public records.
Records also show that a city-hired lawyer has informed the city that if it chooses, it could take the position that it owes Bill Skipper’s estate $40,000 plus interest due to Bill Skipper not notifying the city of its payment error. The $40,000 amount is arrived by calculating payments over six years, which the attorney says is the statute of limitations for such matters.
LaMont says city officials are deliberately concealing the information and the underpayment funds from Teena Skipper after making what apparently was an honest mistake for years.
“The City told her she wasn’t entitled to anything from Mr. Skipper’s pension,
which was a deliberate lie,” said LaMont, who made tape recordings of meetings with Lott and other staffers while on the job, and has filed a federal race and sexual discrimination suit against Lott and the city.
“The City chose to hide this debt,” LaMont said. “Mr. Skipper’s widow was never notified Mr. Skipper’s estate was owed this money. She is about to lose the only transportation she has (used auto) because her income is so limited. She is struggling to keep up her rent and car payment and largely depends on the goodwill of her neighbors and church family members (for assistance).”
If that’s the case, Teena Skipper is the latest of a long list of victims of Lott’s failure to obey city policies and the laws. Shortly after Lott was hired in 2005, dozens of city employees were victimized by a failed pay-for-performance program administered by Lott in a similar case of mistakes-turned-theft.
Other recordings of LaMont reviewed this month by The Albany Journal substantiate LaMont’s claims that she and others are victims of retaliation and racial and sexual discrimination at city hall, among other discretions on the part of Lott and others. Indeed, it is LaMont’s battle with Lott and her discrimination complaint that finally prompted City Commission members to demand Lott’s resignation in July. However, Lott is being allowed to stay on the job, possibly until July 2011.
LaMont says she intends to turn her audiotapes over to U.S. Department of Justice.