A former Stanislaus County sheriff's deputy received almost $3,000 a month in disability retirement benefits even while he was working a new job as a police sergeant in Fort Bragg.
In May, the Stanislaus County Employees' Retirement Association stopped paying the benefits to Phillip Lee Ward based on a determination that he no longer was disabled by injuries suffered as a Stanislaus deputy.
Officials said they gave Ward many opportunities to show he still deserved the disability retirement, but he refused StanCERA's requests for information and blocked efforts to obtain records from the city of Fort Bragg.
Ward received up to $2,800 in monthly disability retirement payments from September 2007 until April of this year. It appears he accepted the job in Fort Bragg in August 2008.
The StanCERA board terminated his benefits after discussing the matter in closed session May 25.
The association is considering whether to take additional action to recover a portion of the benefit payments, Administrator Tom Watson said.
StanCERA officials said they could not discuss many of the details because of confidentiality rules. The association administers retirement benefits for employees of the county, Ceres, the Superior Court and five special districts.
"This was a flagrant abuse of the system," said Jim DeMartini, a StanCERA board member. "I think this case is unusual and exceptional. I was incensed someone would rip off the system like this."
Modesto attorney Adam Stewart, who represents Ward, said the former deputy was justified in drawing the benefit. He disagreed with StanCERA's position that Ward's job duties in Fort Bragg are similar to his work for Stanislaus County.
"His job is heavily administrative there; he is not out on the streets chasing bad guys," Stewart said. "His disability and work restrictions in Fort Bragg are consistent with his job duties."
Watson said disabled Stan-CERA members who return to work may continue to get disability retirement payments only if it's a different, lower- paying job. For example, a social worker whose work-related disability compels her to retire could work as a typist without losing the entire benefit.
"If the position pays less, then the retirement system can pay the difference in wages," he said.
Ward, who comes from a law enforcement family, was a Stanislaus County deputy from August 1995 to September 2007. A Bee story in 1998 said he was then serving with the department's special weapons and tactics team.
According to facts in the retirement case, within the last two years of employment he was injured in a work-related traffic accident and required surgery to fuse vertebrae in his neck.
StanCERA approved his application for a service-connected disability, a determination that his injuries prevented him from continuing to serve as a deputy. He wasn't yet eligible for normal retirement benefits, but the disability entitled him to payments from StanCERA amounting to 50 percent of his final-year salary.
Officials started asking questions, however, upon learning from an August 2008 news article that Ward had accepted a sergeant's position in Fort Bragg. Ward was hired by former Stanislaus County Assistant Sheriff Mark Puthuff, who became Fort Bragg's police chief after his loss to Adam Christianson in the 2006 sheriff's election.
StanCERA made several attempts to obtain Ward's records from Fort Bragg, but Ward exercised a legal right of sworn officers not to release the records, even after the association pursued legal action in 2009.
The association may require work-disabled members less than 55 years old to undergo a medical exam to re-evaluate their disability, but Ward declined.
Officials found a job description on Fort Bragg's Web site, stating that sergeants must be able to use physical force to battle and apprehend suspects.
"They blocked every request to send us the records," DeMartini recalled. "We took him to a court hearing, and he did not show up."
Puthuff did not return calls Monday. Ward said through his attorney that he's the victim of a political vendetta, referring to former political squabbles between Christianson and Puthuff.
"He feels this is completely political," Stewart said. "We are close to resolving this with StanCERA."
Watson said the association does not monitor its members who receive disability retirement benefits. But it may ask questions or re-evaluate their eligibility based on information it receives about members.
According to an annual report, 379 of StanCERA's nearly 2,800 retirees receive disability payments.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.