Fire Fighter Union Boss Rips Off Taxpayers, Part 1: Quid Pro Quo

This is a story that can be told far too often.  It’s about a Union Boss who rips off taxpayers and his own union members in order to have a fatter retirement.  But, this story has so many twists that it will take three articles to give it justice – “Part 1: Quid Pro Quo,” “Part 2: Get Out Of Jail Free Cards,” and “Part 3: Big Labor Boss Payback.”  By the end of the three blogs, you should have a terrible taste in your mouth and a feeling of outrage about a system corrupted by union bosses from local town halls to the White House.  Let’s begin with an introduction to the protagonist.

Ronald Saathoff, former president of the San Diego City Firefighters Local 145.

Due to his union position, San Diego’s Fire Fighter Union President Ron Saathoff became a San Diego City Employees Retirement System (SDCERS) Board of Trustees member.  San Diego’s Fire fighter union is part of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).  He was there to be a watchdog for his union brothers and other city employees, but Saathoff used his position at SDCERS to pad his own pension.  In a 2002 deal that increased Saathoff’s taxpayer-funded pension by at least $30,000/year, he voted to allow the SDCERS pension plan increase its underfunding, putting younger San Diego public employees, including firefighters, at increased risk.  Then, he retired from the city a year later.

Saathoff’s special bonus retirement pay, referred to as “Presidential Leave Retirement Benefit,” is a special benefit that San Diego Taxpayers also pay other union presidents at the San Diego Municipal Employees Association and the San Diego Police Officers Association unions.


In 2002, Saathoff saw an opportunity to get in on the action and force his own sweetheart deal, just like the other two union presidents.

In an apparent exchange for his “Presidential Leave Retirement Benefit” retirement increase, Saathoff agreed to allow the San Diego employees’ pension to become more underfunded.

A few days prior to his stepped-up retirement deal, Saathoff actually appeared to be fighting for his fellow employees and he made a motion to double the city’s pension funding contributions and keep an 82.3% underfunding trigger rather than lowering it.  However, his previous concerns for the wellbeing of the city employees’ pension go up in smoke after Saathoff maneuvered a quid pro quoagreement that guaranteed him a “Presidential Leave Retirement Benefit” for his votes on the SDCERS board.  By 2004 with help from Saathoff’s votes, the SDCERS underfunding quickly slid to 67.2%.

Even California Supreme Court documents indicate that Saathoff’s deal is a clear quid pro quo:

“More directly, in a May 21 e-mail from defendant Webster to Michael McGhee, a lead City negotiator on the Firefighters contract, Webster asked: ‘The [Firefighters] write up you sent out did not state that their increased offset was contingent on the Board [relaxing the trigger ... . I thought ALL retirement improvements (including the preside[n]tial leave (?)) were contingent on the trigger... .  [E]specially need Ron [Saathoff] behind releasing the trigger since he runs the show at [SD]CERS .’  (Italics added.)  In an e-mail reply, McGhee confirmed the retirement benefits were contingent. At the preliminary hearing, McGhee testified that he understood Saathoff’s incumbent union president benefit was contingent on the SDCERS Board providing relief.” [Emphasis Added]

Taxpayers across the country regularly fund union activity and union salaries, often referred to as “union time.”  Often “union time” is included in the pension calculations paid by local, state, and federal taxpayers.  Thousands of so-called government-paid employees are really working for their union full-time, not working for the benefit of taxpayers.  In forced-unionism states, these “union time” schemes are rampant.  “Union time” is political payback to union bosses; there is no benefit for taxpayers.

The result of “union time” payments can be very costly because taxpayers are forced to pay one person to do union work, that is, these city employees on “union time” are working under the direction of the union, not the city.  These so-called government employees on “union time” do no actual government work.  In addition, taxpayers have to pay second person to do the actual government work that the person on “union time” was originally hired to perform.

Like compulsory unionism, “union time” is a political payback scheme that creates an army of taxpayer-funded re-election “volunteers.”  But, in Saathoff’s case, his taxpayer-funded “union pension” was a straight bribe that Saathoff took to shirk his fiduciary responsibilities and sell-out out his fellow fire fighters as well other San Diego government employees.  Even as he remained the president of his local fire fighter union, Saathoff was so brazen that he only waited a year after the ink dried on his insider deal to quit his city job and start collecting the taxpayer-funded super retirement.

It is shameless for fire fighter union presidents like Saathoff, who hide behind the selflessness of fire fighters who risk their lives to help the public, to gain positions of trust only to squander taxpayer money and the future benefits of young fire fighters.

Saathoff’s scandal highlights a glaring problem created by taxpayers subsidizing Big Labor staff pay and retirements.  No matter your city’s or state’s financial condition, “union time” would be great place to start cutting the budget and using these resources to reduce taxes or fund necessary services.  It certainly would be a good place for the federal government to cut.

Fire Fighter union boss Saathoff’s scandalous story still has many turns ahead.  His insider becomes conspicuous and of interest to state and federal prosecutors.  “Part 2: Get Out Of Jail Free Cards” exposes the deleterious influence Big Labor has over our justice system.


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