I am the Clifford in the so called “Clifford case,” and I am one of 177 individuals who have filed suit against the state of Rhode Island. I worked as a high school teacher for over 30 years, and made the decision to retire after sitting with the state retirement board to review my earned benefits. I signed papers agreeing to the terms that were explained and promised. For over 30 years I contributed to the pension fund and did exactly what the state told me to do. Having retired with an understanding of my promised benefits, the state suddenly decided to “change the rules of the game,” and retracted my earned and promised benefits. This is one of the reasons for my becoming a part of this suit against the state.
One of the state’s changes was the elimination of the COLA. My pension benefits would fast become meaningless without a COLA to protect against inflation, but the general treasurer has argued this was necessary to save money. In fact, she is not saving money, and in fact the taking of the COLA from retirees was completely unnecessary. The general treasurer has chosen to place a large portion of retirement money in a “hedge fund,” at enormous risk, and with extremely expensive management fees. A nationally known forensic auditor who specializes in pension fund audits has written publicly that the cost of those excessive management fees over the next 20 years will amount to more than the cost of the COLA, so taking the COLA and harming thousands of retirees was totally unnecessary.
Then came the 38 Studios debacle in which state leaders made an illegal, ill advised, very risky loan, which failed. The state of R.I. has no legal obligation to pay back that loan, and in doing so is simply transferring taxpayer money to Wall Street and insurance companies who bought the loans understanding their risk. The only argument state leaders have offered for paying back the loan is that the state has a “moral obligation” to pay back an illegal loan to those who knew the risks in buying the bonds. It is insulting that state leaders felt a “moral obligation” to Wall Street and insurance companies, but felt no such “moral obligation” to citizens of R.I. who played by the rules for their entire working careers. There is something drastically wrong with the priorities of state leaders in their assessment and application of the phrase “moral obligation.”
Because I was appalled with the back room process, and banana republic style vote, in an attempt to force this so called “settlement” down the throats of all of retirees without any say or participation, I joined a group bringing suit against R.I. The “agreement” was hammered out in secret meetings by unknown people and members were forced to accept a third world style vote. If you did not return your ballot, it was assumed you were voting to support the back room deal. Red flags went up with the announcement of: a) the agreement and b) the rigged voting system. I, like many in the state retirement system, felt sold out, bitter, and totally un-represented. There is no one in this process protecting and fighting for my rights, so 177 likeminded folks hired our own attorney to fight for us. As a retiree, do you feel sold out, treated unfairly, left out of the process, and no one really represents your interests? If that’s you, join us by contacting Attorney Sean O’Leary in Warwick. Our goal is to fight this battle in an open court room where there is light and transparency, as opposed to the dark secret back rooms where mysterious people trade political favors for your future.
I, like most, believe in a sense of fair play, and that a promise made should be kept. Readers would never get involved in a game where the rules can be arbitrarily changed at any time. That is a no-win and totally unjust game.
Lastly, I would argue the proposed settlement was very shortsighted, and in the long run will only create a self-perpetuating economic problem for the state. If the state cuts the COLA, members would be forced to consider leaving the state of R.I. and fleeing to one of many states that does not have an income tax, thus saving money to compensate for losing their COLA.
So in the long run state income tax revenues will fall and the economic problem of the state will only be exacerbated. Additionally cutting the COLA for thousands of Rhode Islanders means they have less money to spend, which contributes to falling tax revenues and a decline in business. When the general treasurer argues she is saving money, she is either disingenuous, economically naïve, or very shortsighted.
The many embittered retirees who have no confidence in their leadership, or in the Machiavellian process they devised, should consider joining our case, which will be decided in the fresh air of daylight. Retirees, it’s your choice; do you want darkness or daylight? Act now, your time to join is short.
Retired teacher Joseph Clifford lives in Jamestown.