Lightfoot denies playing politics with police pension board

Lightfoot personally denied allegations by Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, whose brother was denied police disability benefits at a higher salary level with free health care.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago police Supt. David Brown at a July 2021 news conference in Lawndale.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, shown with Chicago Police Supt. David Brown at a July 2021 news conference in Lawndale, emphatically denied getting involved in police pension board decisions.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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Chicago has a “long and sordid history” of politicians “bending the pension code to their will,” but “those days are over,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot declared Tuesday.

One week before the mayoral election, Lightfoot personally denied allegations by Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza.

Mendoza told the Sun-Times Lightfoot was responsible for failing Mendoza’s brother and other Chicago Police Department officers by directing her appointments to the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago to vote against a “duty disability” that would provide pay and health insurance to officers facing career-ending complications from COVID-19.

“Any suggestion that I or anyone in my administration was indifferent to the cause of suffering of first responders when it comes to COVID issues is just utter nonsense,” Lightfoot said.

“In my administration, we simply don’t play politics with the pension code. And we don’t play politics with the law. Our city and our state, unfortunately as many of you know and have reported on, have a long, sordid history of politicians and other clouted individuals bending the pension system to their will to the total disadvantage of taxpayers. And as far as I’m concerned, those days are over,” the mayor said.

Lightfoot said the boards overseeing all four city employee pension funds “must be independent,” and the boards must act “without fear or favor.”

“I never ask, nor do I receive, any information about any of them. ... No one gets special treatment because of who they are or to whom they’re related. That doesn’t change, whether we are in the week before an election or at any other time of the year. I don’t get involved with it and I definitely don’t interfere with pension board decisions,” she said.

The pension boards have a “clear mandate” to follow the pension code “defined by” the Illinois General Assembly, the mayor said, and if a change is needed, she will work to help change it in Springfield.

“Maybe it worked differently in the past. But under my administration, pension benefits aren’t determined on the basis of my personal relationships or personal feelings about anyone or their brother,” Lightfoot said.

Sgt. Joaquin Mendoza is a 22-year veteran Chicago police officer who was hospitalized for 72 days and lost the use of his kidneys and his left arm after contracting COVID-19 on the job, according to his lawyers. He has been unable to work since contracting COVID-19 in November 2020, before COVID-19 vaccines were available.

He sought a duty disability that would have provided 75% of his regular salary and free health care — rather than an “ordinary disability” which provides 50% of his salary, no health care and is phased out after five years.

On Feb. 24, 2022, the Chicago police pension board voted 4-3 to deny Mendoza a duty disability and awarded him an ordinary disability.

Since then, the board has denied a duty disability for another officer who got COVID-19. At least 18 other Chicago police officers have similar requests pending, according to Mendoza’s attorneys.

Susana Mendoza, who ran for mayor against Lightfoot in 2019, said she holds Lightfoot “100 percent accountable” for the board’s decision to deny a “duty disability” to her brother and other officers facing career-ending COVID-19 complications.

“I told her that not only did you not have my brother’s back and any other police officers like him, you stabbed him in the back, and you twisted it into his heart. And you did the same to me,” she told the Sun-Times.

“Anyone who knows anything about how those pension funds run knows that the mayoral appointees work only at the behest of the mayor and take their marching orders from the mayor,” Mendoza said.

Lightfoot said Tuesday that she saw Susana Mendoza at a Hispanic American Construction Industry Association banquet at the Hilton Chicago on March 8, 2022, a few weeks after the pension board rejected her brother’s duty disability request.

But, the mayor did not acknowledge having offered to “try to fix it,” as Mendoza claims, during their brief, but volatile, encounter.

“I want to give her some grace here. But she was extraordinarily emotional and let fly some accusations. And I thought, in that circumstance, it was probably best if I just let her be, and I walked away,” Lightfoot said.

“You’re gonna have to ask the comptroller about the curious timing of her decision [to go public]. It’s not lost on me that this is a press conference at City Hall a week before the election. You can draw your own conclusions as to why that’s happening,” said Lightfoot.

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