Judge's quick exit nets $1.3 million in retirement pay

Published on May 27, 2010 in the Pensacola News Journal

An Escambia County judge who gave five days' notice of his departure from the bench qualifies for nearly $1.3 million in retirement money.

Judge David Ackerman, 63, announced Monday that he intends to resign from his position on Friday for personal reasons but intends to return to his job Feb. 1.

The judge said he wants access to a lump sum of retirement money to help deal with the fallout from his wife's bankrupt business. The law requires him to stay out of work at least six months to avoid having to reimburse the retirement money when he returns to the bench.

Based on figures Ackerman requested in December from the Florida Retirement System, he qualifies for an estimated lump sum payment of $1,293,549.

Abigail Bogan Ackerman, and her brother, Chris Bogan, own Bogan Supply Co., a high-end kitchen and plumbing supply business forced into Chapter 7 involuntary bankruptcy by creditors on Dec. 23.

Bogan Supply owes $1.3 million to 73 secured and unsecured creditors, according to paperwork filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Pensacola.

Ackerman, who makes $134,280 a year as a county judge, said he has no financial ties to his wife's company.

Administrative Circuit Judge Paul Rasmussen said Tuesday that Gov. Charlie Crist's office is examining whether to fill the vacant position during Ackerman's temporary absence.

"I am under the impression that they're giving this their highest priority and that they might make some decision by the end of the week," Rasmussen said.

Calls to Crist's press office were not returned.

State policy

The state sets limitations on how and when Ackerman can take the retirement money he has earned in his 19 years as a judge.

To receive a lump-sum payout, he must move his accrued pension into an investment account similar to a 401(k), said Linda McDonald, spokeswoman for the Department of Management Services. Otherwise, he would receive a guaranteed monthly pension payment for life.

On July 1, Ackerman can draw 10 percent - about $130,000 - of his retirement investment account. By Sept. 1, he can draw the remaining 90 percent from his investment.

State law allows Ackerman to resume his role as judge since he won another six-year term without opposition. No one filed against him by the April 30 deadline.

If he were to return within six months of his initial withdrawal, he would have to repay what he withdrew from the system, according to the statute.

Once Ackerman returns to the bench, he will not be allowed to participate in the Florida Retirement System again, said Dennis Mackee, spokesman for the Florida State Board of Administration.

This wasn't always the case. Last year, the Legislature passed a bill limiting the controversial practice of "double dipping" - state employees retiring from a position, returning to it and continuing to accrue a new pension while drawing on the old one.

Under the new law, once a state employee retires and returns, he or she may not begin to accrue a new pension.

Taking up the slack

Ackerman's decision to make a hasty exit from the bench creates some hurdles for the remaining county judges and other court agencies.

County judges handle misdemeanor criminal cases, including DUIs, civil cases of up to $15,000, and first court appearances of misdemeanor and felony defendants. Ackerman is one of five county judges, four of whom preside over criminal cases.

The four judges handled more than 7,700 criminal cases and more than 3,800 traffic cases last year.

Ackerman's portion of the workload must be divvied among his three remaining peers.

Last year, Ackerman saw 2,036 misdemeanor defendants, and to date this year, 807 cases have come before him. The judge also saw 1,015 people in traffic court last year and 414 to date this year.

Assistant State Attorney Greg Marcille said Wednesday that the State Attorney's Office will take the prosecutors assigned to Ackerman's division and spread them among the other divisions now saddled with Ackerman's case load.

"We will have to reorganize our office to accommodate the change of the divisions," Marcille said. "We will be able to continue to do everything required of our office, but we'll just have to adjust our personnel to accommodate the increased case load in the other divisions."

Assistant Public Defender Gregg Hall, who supervises the misdemeanor division, had two attorneys assigned to hear cases in Ackerman's division. He said Wednesday it's unclear how his office will proceed after Ackerman leaves.

"I'm still working on some different scenarios," he said. "I am still scratching my head on this."