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@by:By Eric Eyre
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- While serving on the state retirement board, state Administration Secretary Robert Ferguson has repeatedly pressed board members and agency administrators for a policy change that would significantly boost his pension, records show.
In February 2009, for instance, Ferguson recommended that the Consolidated Public Retirement Board make more people eligible for West Virginia's maximum five-year military service credit by giving state employees credits for six additional U.S. military actions, according to emails sent to a former retirement board member who also served as then-Gov. Joe Manchin's general counsel.
Ferguson did not take part in the six U.S. military events. However, he served in the Marines at the time, which would make him eligible for an additional four years and 11 months of military service credit under his proposal -- on top of the eight months of credit he's already entitled to as an active-duty Marine during the Persian Gulf War.
The state retirement board recognizes the Persian Gulf War as a U.S. military conflict, but state law doesn't authorize the agency to give military service credits for the other six military incidents that Ferguson recommended -- "Lebanon Peacekeeping," the U.S. invasions of Grenada and Panama, attack on Libya, "Restore Democracy in Somalia" and "Restore Democracy in Haiti."
Ferguson was with the Marines from 1978 to 2000, according to the Department of Administration website. His service overlapped the six additional U.S. military actions, which occurred from 1982 to 1996.
In at least six of his seven years as administration secretary, Ferguson has either inquired about or advocated for expanding the military retirement credit, according to emails and letters obtained by the Gazette.
The additional credits -- which would bring him to the five-year maximum -- would allow Ferguson to collect an estimated $7,650 a year in extra retirement pay, or about $229,000 over the next 30 years.
Ferguson, 55, would not comment on his longtime push to expand the military service credit. The Gazette left phone messages and submitted questions in writing, but Ferguson did not answer them. His office referred questions to Department of Administration spokeswoman Diane Holley-Brown.
"Those questions do not pertain to the Department of Administration," Holley-Brown said. "Therefore, I cannot be of assistance."
Don Young, quartermaster for the VFW of West Virginia, said Ferguson's actions, if successful, would help numerous other state employees who are also veterans.
The state's military service credit allows state employees to add up to five years to the total number of employment years used to calculate their retirement pay. The additional years - once plugged into a formula - increase state workers' pension payments.
State law does not require state employees to serve in combat to qualify for military service credits - only that they were on active during the time of the conflicts.
"Secretary Ferguson is trying to fight for the right thing," said Young, who sometimes attends retirement board meetings. "He's simply trying to help veterans. The board needs to be shamed into doing the right thing."
Questions started early
Ferguson's inquiries about the state's military service retirement credit started in 2005, just months after Manchin appointed him to the cabinet secretary post, records show.
That year, Ferguson contacted the office of former U.S. Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, requesting a list of "military conflicts involving the United States" since 1979, according to a letter Ensign's legislative aide sent back to Ferguson.
In the response, Ensign's office provided Ferguson with a list of conflicts dating back to 1979 -- the year after Ferguson began his service with the Marines.
The Gazette requested a copy of Ferguson's initial letter to Ensign's office under the state Freedom of Information Act, but Ferguson did not provide the document.
Sometime later, Ferguson contacted the office of Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., requesting a second list of U.S. military conflicts.
This time, Ferguson asked for "all armed conflicts, military actions and combat operations" since the Vietnam War, according to an undated response letter from Jeanne Fites of the U.S. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense.
The letter, which Ferguson's office provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, wasn't dated but was likely written in 2006, the final year Fites served in that position.
Ferguson did not provide a copy of any correspondence sent to Capito's office. Ferguson apparently contacted Capito's office as a "constituent," according to Fites' letter, and Capito's staff forwarded Ferguson's request to Fites.
Post 9/11 conflicts
In later years, Ferguson continued to raise questions about the state's military service credit.
In December 2007, he sent an email to Anne Lambright, former executive director of the state Consolidated Public Retirement Board.
Ferguson asked why her agency's website suddenly listed "Operation Noble Eagle, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom" as U.S. conflicts that could be counted toward the military service retirement credit.
"Why are not the conflicts in Kosovo, Somalia, Beirut, Grenada, Panama, Libya, the USS Cole bombing, the Kobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Embassy bombing in Africa, the Liberia embassy evacuation, and all the conflicts in the West Virginia veteran's bonus amendment in the West Virginia Constitution mentioned?" Ferguson asked.
Ferguson's service with the Marines overlapped all of those incidents.
Lambright explained that Betty Ireland, the agency's former executive director who later served as secretary of state, declared that the post 9/11 conflicts would be counted toward the military service credit. Consolidated Public Retirement Board members ratified Ireland's decision in July 2007.
Lambright told Ferguson the retirement board hadn't approved the other conflicts mentioned in his email.
In 2008, Ferguson asked Lambright via email whether her agency had given a state employee an 11-day credit for service during the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983.
Ferguson did not take part in the Grenada invasion, but served in the Marines at the time.
"I abstained from the vote because I too was mobilized for this operation and might benefit from any service credit," Ferguson wrote to Lambright in March 2008. "I abstained because I was of the belief that the board was not considering any conflicts not specifically enumerated in the code."
After the retirement board rebuffed Ferguson's push to expand the military service credit, he lobbied for legislation that would bolster his retirement pay.
In emails to Jonathan Deem, Manchin's former general counsel, in 2009, Ferguson said his Administration Department would be "responsible for introducing" the legislation.
Ferguson recommended the bill include the six military events that the retirement board previously declined to count toward the military service credit.
"Because we now enumerate Noble Eagle, my gut tells me that not enumerating the 'other' conflicts listed below MAY further exacerbate the argument from veterans," Ferguson wrote to Deem on Feb. 23, 2009. "On the whole, the bill is sold going forward and is clearly the right thing to do. I need to work with you and [former Manchin legislative liaison] Jim Pitrolo on talking points to address this piece of the bill to legislators and veterans."
The bill didn't get out of committee that year. Similar legislation was re-introduced last month.
In recent months, Ferguson has intensified his push to expand the military service retirement credit for state employees.
In a Dec. 14 letter to fellow retirement board members, Ferguson disputed the findings of a board-appointed hearing officer, who ruled that state Aviation Director Keith Wood wasn't eligible for any additional time toward the five-year maximum five-year military service credit. Ferguson urged fellow retirement board members to overturn the decision.
Wood, who served as an aviator and intelligence officer in the U.S. Army from 1978 to 1992, requested additional military credits for other events, such as the invasion of Panama, "Iraq no-fly zone," and the "Joint Endeavor in the former Yugoslavia."
Ferguson's legislative aide, Donna Lipscomb, delivered her boss' letter to retirement board members at their December meeting. Ferguson didn't attend. Wood, who pilots the state-owned plane, reports directly to Ferguson.
Retirement board members voted unanimously to uphold the hearing officer's decision.
VFW: 'Ferguson demonstrated enormous restraint'
The state Ethics Act prohibits public officials from using their office for private gain.
But there's an exemption that allows public officials to benefit from their office, provided their actions relate to the "advancement of public policy goals" or "constituent services."
Ferguson has said that he didn't seek the Ethics Commission's OK -- through a formal advisory opinion or informal guidance -- before he pushed for the retirement board policy change that would boost his pension pay.
Ferguson already collects a military pension for his service with the Marines.
Young of the VFW said the Consolidated Public Retirement Board should be investigated, not Ferguson. He said board members made an arbitrary decision to count post-9/11 conflicts toward pensions, even though state law doesn't give them that authority.
"The CPRB is a bunch of bureaucrats who are exercising authority they don't have," Young said. "It's disgraceful. Nobody's held them accountable.
Young said veterans plan to meet with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin about expanding the military service retirement credit for state employees.
"I think [Ferguson] has demonstrated enormous restraint," Young said. "Just because he serves in the governor's cabinet doesn't mean he doesn't have the right to help veterans."
Reach Eric Eyre at erice...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.