An agreement in the Cahokia village’s police contract contributed to an increase in pay for retired police chief and now St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson, as well as other police administrators prior to their retirements.
Now, former Fairview Heights Police Chief Nick Gailius, a Republican challenging Watson in the Nov. 6 election has questioned the increase.
“The citizens need to be reassured that, if something is inappropriate, it will be properly addressed by the authorities,” Gailius wrote in a statement, which referred to the increase in pay as “suspicious irregularities.”
“There’s something not right there,” Gailius said.
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Watson received a more than $32,000 raise shortly before his retirement in 2011, according to pension board records. The pay hike resulted in an increase in his state pension.
“We’re trying to determine if in fact that is against (state) statute or not,” said Lt. Ben Callahan of the Cahokia Police Department and member of the Cahokia Police Pension Board.
Watson was not the first nor the last police official to benefit from the agreement, Callahan said.
“There have been people before and afterward who also adhered to that contract,” Callahan said. “He is not the only one.”
Watson said Gailius’ accusations amounted to “a political attack.”
“It’s like I got something that nobody else got and that is not the truth at all,” Watson said. “They (the village board) are the ones who made the contract. I didn’t make it. I don’t have control over that. I didn’t have some sideline deal.”
The village board and pension board approved Watson’s raise, according to Callahan, and the agreement was established between police administrators and village officials before Watson became police chief.
Increases in other salaries for police administrators before their retirement was not immediately available.
Watson began his career in law enforcement as a police officer in Cahokia in 1978. Watson served 33 years in the department and retired as chief in 2011, when he became sheriff.
Board members plan to seek “an opinion letter” from the Department of Insurance, which administers the Cahokia police pension, “to make sure everything was legal,” Callahan added.
“If not (legal), is there is an error? If so, where’s the error? If so, how can it be rectified?” Callahan said.
Dennis Orsey, an attorney from Granite City representing the pension fund, said an initial review of documents from the time shows village officials followed state procedure.
Orsey has only represented the pension for a year, and none of the current pension board members were serving on the board at the time, except for Watson himself. Watson, who still serves as a member of the board, recused himself from the vote on his pension benefits because of concerns about a conflict of interest.
The retirement statute for police pension funds outlines the process — first, the police pension board does a preliminary calculation of the retiree’s benefits using a Department of Insurance calculator, Orsey said. The calculator asks for the salary based on rank and uses it to determine pension benefits.
Then, the board submits the numbers to the village treasurer for review. It then goes back to the pension board for final approval.
“(The process) was imposed to say we’re going to allow the treasurer to review this information before it’s voted on and weigh in,” the pension attorney said. “That was done here, so the municipality had a chance to weigh in.”
The St. Clair County Republican Party’s Central Committee raised other concerns about Watson recently, saying he included his sheriff’s office phone line on campaign mailers. Watson said he would fix that issue.
Earlier this month, a County Clerk employee quit after it became clear she used a taxpayer-funded fax machine in the clerk’s office to file political paperwork, some on behalf of Watson’s campaign committee.