Hamilton County Sheriff William “Billy” Long will be paid full pension and health benefits even if he is convicted of felony drug and bribery charges and forced to give up his job, officials said Tuesday.
Sheriff Long’s pension benefits, estimated by state officials at about $26,400 a year if he resigns or is removed from office this month, would be less than a fourth of his current $108,304 salary as sheriff. But providing any retirement payments to a sheriff accused of drug trafficking, money laundering and gun-related charges is upsetting to some.
Hamilton County Commissioner Curtis Adams said Sheriff Long “put a bad light on all elected officials” and should be denied any more money from the state or county. Mr. Adams, an East Ridge Republican who has urged Mr. Long to resign, said pensions “are designed for people that do a good job, but here’s a guy that let us all down and disappointed and upset many people.”
Ben Cunningham, a coordinator for Tennessee Tax Revolt in Nashville, called the charges against Sheriff Long “a terrible situation” and urged the Legislature to alter its pension to deny benefits to those convicted of felonies.
In May 1993, the state Legislature moved to deny any future pension benefits to anyone convicted of a federal felony charge related to his or her job. But pension laws prohibit retroactive changes in benefits for those already in the system, officials said.
Mr. Long served for more than 30 years in the sheriff’s department and on active military duty before he retired to run for sheriff in 2006. He was collecting about $2,000 a month in retirement payments when he ran and was elected as Hamilton County sheriff in August 2006, according to Jill Bachus, director of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System. Hamilton County also helps pay for post-retirement health benefits for people who qualify for full retirement who have not yet reached age 65 and qualified for Medicare, Hamilton County finance officials said Tuesday.
In the most recent FBI sting before Mr. Long’s arrest on Saturday, four senior legislators convicted of accepting bribes in the FBI’s Tennessee Waltz investigation kept their pensions because they had entered the pension program before the state adopted its current policy of denying benefits to convicted felons. Former state Rep. Chris Newton, R-Cleveland, did not receive any pension benefits after his conviction, however, because he entered the state pension program after 1993, Mr. Bachus said.
Mr. Cunningham said public officials who break the law “violate their sacred trusts.”
“The Legislature needs to look at this situation to see if there is any way” that Mr. Long can be denied his benefits if convicted, he said.
Mr. Long, who is being held by the FBI awaiting a preliminary hearing Friday, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Mr. Adams said Mr. Long personally won’t need any pension if he is convicted of the charges because he will be in jail “for a very long time.”
He said if Mr. Long doesn’t resign as sheriff by Friday, he would urge the county commission to begin ouster proceedings against him.