Fourth District Supervisor Shawn Nelson and former Second District Supervisor John Moorlach campaigned their way on to the Orange County Board of Supervisors warning voters of the ills of the county’s pension system and its unfunded liabilities like two modern day town criers announcing the end of the world.
The system was unsustainable. The taxpayer burden was too great. Something had to be done.
The two politicians took action. They quietly lined their own pockets with taxpayer dollars.
Nelson was elected in June 2010 and immediately signed up for the most generous pension the County offered – 2.7% at 55.
That stroke of a pen didn’t just give him a pension with the Orange County Employees Retirement System. His membership in OCERS also triggered reciprocity with the city of Fullerton, where Nelson served as a part-time city councilman, which could potentially boost his city pension even more – by as much as 13 times.
Instead of being based on his highest councilman salary of $10,919, his 7 ½ years at Fullerton would be calculated at his county supervisor salary. According to the County of Orange website, Nelson earned $147,168 plus $13,680 in other pensionable pay last year.
Critics labeled Nelson a hypocrite, a swindler, a fraud. Two months later, Nelson sent a letter to OCERS on Aug. 26, 2010 explaining he erred. He didn’t want a county pension – and that, he explained at the time, negated the reciprocity with the city of Fullerton.
He had an opportunity to cash in on public pension dollars and he said thanks, but no thanks. Not having a county pension had perks. Oh, did it have perks. He was a champion for pension reform and for Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public and their taxpayer dollars – and he had put his money where his mouth was.
“We can’t afford an out of control pension system and we can’t afford the backroom deals with special interests,” Nelson lectured on his reelection campaign website.
Nelson brushed off critics when the Orange County Register revealed in February 2014 that Nelson was whizzing around the County in a taxpayer-funded Prius (a PR stunt and perk of his role as an Air Quality Management District board member) while simultaneously collecting a pensionable $9,180 annual County car allowance.
Nelson explained he is sacrificing income by serving on the Board of Supervisors, so such perks should be taken in stride. Oh, and in case you forgot, he reminded Register readers that he had declined a pension.
“My bonus (as a lawyer) was almost double what my current salary is,” Nelson told the Register. “It’s all part of the big picture. I’m hardly getting away with something here.”
But Nelson was getting away with something – something much larger than a Prius.
In 2012, Nelson orchestrated Measure B, sold to the voters as a “pension reform” initiative designed to force new county supervisors to enroll in the lowest pension formula possible.
“Your “yes” vote on Measure B will help ensure that future Members of the Board of Supervisors lead by example, and that they will no longer personally gain from future efforts to increase pension benefits,” read the ballot argument in favor of Measure B. The argument was signed by Nelson, Wayne Lindholm, the president of the Lincoln Club of Orange County, Reed Royalty, president of the Orange County Taxpayers Association, and Jack Dean, president of the Fullerton Association of Concerned Taxpayers.
It was a ruse. Voter approval of Measure B combined with the few months Nelson spent as a member of OCERS created a handy loophole to allow Nelson to renege on his 2010 request to be removed from OCERS and force County taxpayers to back pay for his pension – with interest - to the tune of $247,625.
It was like he never left OCERS.
Former Fifth District Supervisor Pat Bates, now a state Senator, shared headlines with Nelson for turning down a pension. Bates stayed true to her pledge to be pension-free.
Nelson’s current colleagues on the Board of Supervisors were forced into the lower pension plan. But Nelson, who claimed to be pension-free, hung on to 2.7%@55 for his first term and 1.62@65 for his second term.
And because, at least on paper, he never left OCERS, the reciprocity with his Fullerton pension still applies.
As County treasurer, Moorlach vigorously opposed the 2.7%@55 pension enhancement for county employees. He built his 2006 campaign for county supervisor on a foundation of anti-pension rhetoric – and won.
But when it came time to select his benefits, Moorlach didn’t decline a pension. Instead, he took the most generous pension formula available. His re-election in 2010 presented him with an opportunity to decline a pension entirely, but he signed up for the most generous plan again.
It paid off.
Earlier this year, Moorlach began drawing a taxpayer-funded county pension worth $83,820 a year. Taxpayers are also paying his $95,291 state Senate salary plus per diem.
One of California’s most outspoken pension critics has become one of Sacramento’s biggest money-spinning double-dippers.
Meanwhile Nelson is continuing to add to his County pension – a pension he claims he never wanted but did everything he could to make sure he kept it. He told the Register “I was dumb enough to run for this office.”
Running for the privilege of representing nearly 600,000 Orange County residents wasn’t dumb.
Getting caught with his hand in the public cookie jar was.
Kimberly Edds is Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs
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