Officials with the Oklahoma Firefighters Pension and Retirement System have accused Henryetta City Manager Raymond Eldridge of making false misrepresentations.
The accusation surfaced in civil litigation filed earlier this year in an effort to resolve a five-year dispute.
“Despite the fact Eldridge knew he was ineligible to participate in OFPRS, he generated false time sheets, billing statements and other reports in an effort to deceive OFPRS into allowing his salary as city manager to be credited toward entry in OFPRS,” the pension system alleged in a court filing.
Eldridge and his attorney, Daniel Gamino, did not return telephone calls seeking comment. However, they did file a document with the court that denied allegations of misconduct without offering specific explanations.
The dispute centers on Eldridge's efforts to continue accruing firefighter pension benefits after being promoted from fire chief to city manager in December 2006.
After being named city manager, Eldridge retained the fire chief's position and attempted to continue accruing firefighters pension benefits by having the city continue to make pension system contributions that included 8 percent withheld from his paycheck plus the city's 13 percent share.
Pension system officials rejected the payments, arguing that Eldridge wasn't eligible to continue participation in the program because of state law restrictions on holding dual offices. They also said the firefighters pension system “is only available to full-time firefighters of participating municipalities or fire protection districts who perform the essential functions of fire suppression, prevention and life safety duties in a fire department.”
Pension officials contend he didn't meet those requirements after his promotion.
As the dispute raged, the Oklahoma attorney general's office and state Legislature were called into the controversy.
First, Robert Jones Jr., executive director of the firefighters pension system, asked then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson to issue an official opinion on whether having one person serve as both city manager and fire chief created a conflict of interest and violated the state's dual-office-holding prohibition.
The attorney general responded with a June 2008 opinion that said it is possible legally to hold both positions, but whether it was lawful in this particular case would depend on information outside the scope of review of the attorney general.
The Legislature then entered the fray, passing a law that specifically prohibits fire chiefs of paid fire departments from also serving as “police chief, city manager, mayor or any other position that impairs the ability to perform the duties of a fire chief.”
The law took effect July 1, 2009, and was expected to resolve the controversy.
However, the day before the new law took effect, Eldridge resigned as fire chief. The pension system alleges he then “created the false and fictitious position of fire marshal” and appointed himself to that position.
The city has continued to send contribution checks to the pension system on Eldridge's behalf and the pension system has continued to reject them.
At one point, the whole Henryretta fire department became ensnarled in the controversy because the city was submitting one check on behalf of all the firefighters and the pension system refused to accept it because Eldridge's contribution was included.
However, the city and pension system worked out an agreement for Eldridge's check to be submitted separately so that its rejection would not affect the other firefighters.
More than five years into the controversy, the city of Henryetta is now asking Oklahoma County District Judge Bryan Dixon to resolve the issue and to tell the city what to do with the more than $26,250 in rejected pension fund contributions that it currently is holding for the benefit of Eldridge.
The pension system has asked the judge to schedule a nonjury trial.
Jones, the pension system's executive director, said the outcome of the trial could have a significant financial impact on the pension fund.
“I'm always concerned about establishing precedents that are not the way the plan was set up to administer,” he said.
There are a lot of fire chiefs in Oklahoma who have gone on to become city managers, he said.
City managers typically make a lot more money than fire chiefs and firefighters, he said, adding that Eldridge was being paid about 60 percent more for his duties as fire marshal/city manager than the man who succeeded him as fire chief.
The pension system is a defined benefit program where benefits are derived from the highest average salary over a consecutive 30-month period within the last five years of service, Jones said.
Allowing former firefighters to claim benefits based on city managers' salaries could lead to those individuals receiving more in benefits than they ever contributed and cause a drain on pension finances, he said.
“I'm perfectly happy for a guy to make all he can as a firefighter, but I insist that he serve as a firefighter,” Jones said. “If you get promoted from a firefighter to city manager, we'll congratulate you, but I don't expect you to come in and tell me a fiction, ... to quite frankly poof up your pension.”