D.C. Council member to probe fire deputy’s pension arrangement

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A D.C. Council member said Thursday that he plans to investigate how a deputy fire chief was placed on leave-without-pay status in the District so he could stay on the department’s books after he took a job as a fire chief in Florida.

Council member Phil Mendelson said he wants to know the details of the arrangement that allows Deputy Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe to remain a D.C. employee while working in Sarasota County, Fla.

“The impression I have is that a special agreement was worked out for somebody high up to cheat the rule regarding retirement,” said Mr. Mendelson, chairman of the council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.

The Washington Times reported Monday that Chief Ellerbe was put on leave without pay from the D.C. fire department when he took the job of fire chief in Florida in July. A fire department spokesman said the arrangement was made to keep Chief Ellerbe in the department until he turns 50 in April so he could collect his pension immediately upon his retirement instead of deferring his benefits until age 55.

WUSA-TV (Channel 9) reported that Assistant Chief Brian K. Lee, who was an interim fire chief under Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, signed a personnel exchange agreement authorizing Chief Ellerbe to work in Florida while remaining a D.C. employee.

Reached by phone on Thursday, Chief Lee said the fire department already had addressed the matter, and would not disclose whether he signed the document.

“I have no comment,” Chief Lee said.

Channel 9 quoted D.C. Department of Human Resources spokesman Andrew L. Gerst as saying the agency has on file a personnel exchange agreement form for Chief Ellerbe.

But in a Dec. 9 response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Times seeking “documents related to Deputy Fire Chief Ellerbe’s participation in a personnel exchange agreement,” Mr. Gerst responded, “DCHR is not in possession of any such documents.”

Mr. Mendelson said his committee has scheduled an oversight hearing for the fire department for February but that he might make inquiries sooner because the issue is time-sensitive.

He said his primary focus is on upper-level management of the department and that he was not sure whether he would ask Chief Ellerbe to attend and to testify.

“If he’s on the payroll he should be in town,” Mr. Mendelson said.

Asked last week about the arrangement, Chief Ellerbe declined to comment.

Chief Ellerbe, a 27-year veteran of the fire department, briefly served as interim fire chief in 2000. He last served as the department’s director of community outreach.

According to the D.C. Police Officers’ and Firefighters’ Retirement Plan, the fire department has a three-tier retirement system that depends on when employment began.

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