Detroit pension board member under fire for lavish travel budget

- A FOX 2 exclusive -- a Detroit battalion chief is under fire for how he is handling his position on the pension board.

Post-bankruptcy - there is supposed to be more transparency and more financial responsibility and oversight with the Detroit police and fire retirement system - but it appears not everyone is playing by the same set of rules.
  
Hawaii, a fantasy destination for many of us. Palm trees, tiki drinks, luaus, sun, surf, sand and pension management 101?!

"Go find something to do because that is a mess," said Battalion Chief Tracy Thomas.

FOX 2: "You are telling me we should not be concerned about the pension board, the money, the retirees' money?"

Say 'aloha' to Battalion Fire Chief Tracy Thomas, who's suddenly putting out fires when it comes to his whereabouts and more importantly, pension dollars.

Pensions that belong to real people. People like Tony Brown, who earned his retirement nest egg serving the Detroit Fire Department for 31 years risking life and limb to serve the public good.

"That's what I worked for," Brown said. "I was promised two things when I came on the job. A good pension and a good health care system. All that changed as (former Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn) Orr and (Gov. Rick) Snyder came in."

In 2013 - Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in history. It didn't take long for uniformed retirees to feel betrayed by a city they spent the majority of their adult lives protecting.

"Now we're stressed trying to enjoy our retirement years with less money than expected," said Retired Detroit Police Sgt. David Malhalab.

Their golden years are now filled with anxiety, uncertainty and penny pinching. Police officers and firefighters don't get Social Security.

Their pensions are all they have and now they are forced to pay for their own healthcare out of that same check.

Every dollar in the pension fund represents a lifeline for a retiree - $3.1 billion managed by the Police and Fire Retirement System. And they want to make sure make sure members of the pension board who oversee all of it, are not squandering one single penny.

"Why are you even here, why?" said Tracy Thomas. "I asked you twice, this is the second time."

This brings us back to Tracy Thomas, who would like to say ‘aloha’ -- as in goodbye, to this whole thing. But not so fast.

"Can I ask you not to out the camera on us," Thomas said.

FOX 2:  "Why not if there is not a problem?”

"Because it is a mess," Thomas said. "I thought you were pretty bright."

FOX 2: "I didn't bring this up; the numbers were given to me. The concern was given to me."

"That person, whoever gave that to you is a mess, too," Thomas said.

That's one word for it. FOX 2 obtained the travel expenses for every board member from July 2015 until June 2016.

Chief Thomas spent more than $21,000 traveling to conferences in places like Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles even Hawaii. Thomas spent in some cases 10 to 20 times more than other board members.

FOX 2 caught up with the battalion chief outside the Public Safety Building in southwest Detroit.

FOX 2: "I have the numbers black and white and you spent 10 times the amount of your other members on the board."

"I am the newest so why wouldn't I," Thomas said. "Why wouldn't I, how do I learn other than going to the conferences?"

FOX 2: "That's a good point so why don't you tell us some of the things that you learned?"

"It tells you right there," Thomas said.

That is a statement from the pension board's spokesperson that says: "In order to educate themselves - each trustee can spend up to $30,000 for travel. It is part of their fiduciary duty - but it has to be approved by the board."

Jeff Pegg was the chairman of the board at the time.

"Twenty-one thousand dollars is a lot," he said.

FOX 2: "Especially everything that's been done with the cuts, people have to work longer to make less in the long run."

"Yes I agree," said Pegg. "I mean yes, I need to look at it."

When you look at the other board members - Brenda Jones attended just one conference in Atlanta, Georgia - she only spent $150.

Records show member John Tucker went to two conferences to fulfill his fiduciary responsibility. But both conferences he attended were in Michigan and they were cheap, while Thomas was hanging out in Hawaii.

"That's money that should go to the pensioners and not into your enjoyment while you are on the board," said Malhalab.

FOX 2: "Does it concern you after the bankruptcy; maybe there is not enough oversight with these numbers?"

"I think after bankruptcy there are a lot of things that concern me on this board," Pegg said. "We definitely need to get our expenses under control. It is not just about travel, we need to get our expenses down on what we pay our professionals too."

FOX 2: "You went to six; some people didn't go to any?"

"Some people are more experienced, I'm the newest one there," Thomas said. "Read that Taryn."

FOX 2: "I will, Jeff Pegg was concerned."

"Well Jeff Pegg is an idiot that's what he is," Thomas said. "And he has been up there forever."

Thomas said he needed all of that travel, all those meetings in conveniently warm climates, to learn on behalf of  police officers and firefighters.

But first he needs to show up for the pension board meetings. FOX 2 found - although records show Thomas took Nov.17 off to attend the pension board meeting -  he never showed. He didn't even show up for his shift that day.

Since FOX 2 began looking into this story - we're told a full-blown investigation is underway regarding Thomas' whereabouts on that day and others.

Meanwhile, at the next board meeting a couple of weeks later, guess who showed up - Tracy Thomas.

The pension board is also in the process of changing the travel policy, reducing expenses for board members. The bankruptcy forced city servants to make financial sacrifices.

Retired Detroit Police Sgt. David Malhalab believes pension board members should do the same.

"We expect them to make prudent investments," he said. "To watch over, to make sure our benefits are protected, that our pension investments are protected - that we don't lose anything to bad investments or bad conduct."

Because retirees like Tony Brown depend on it.

"My pension means everything to me," said Brown. "I can't live, I can't drive the car I drive. I can't eat, I can't sleep without my pension."

The top brass at the Detroit Fire Department was not happy when FOX 2 pointed out that Thomas was not where he was supposed to be. Then FOX 2 learned he tried to cover it up and that is what prompted the investigation into his whereabouts for work shifts, pension board meetings and his trips to make sure everything lines up.

 


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