Miss. patrol leader double dips with pension, pay

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 19, 2010

JACKSON (AP) — The retired trooper who’s now heading the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol continues to draw his pension while collecting a state paycheck.

The Clarion-Ledger requested public records that show Albert Santa Cruz is being paid $95,000 as patrol director, a job he has held since July 1.

He is drawing about $42,000 annually as pension from his 31-year career as a trooper.

State law allows such double-dipping, and it’s not unusual for retired state employees to return to the public payroll in some capacity.

Santa Cruz is now 70. Records show he retired in March 2005, then returned about three months later.

He had been a member of Gov. Haley Barbour’s security detail since 2005, a job that paid about $46,655.

If Santa Cruz retires again at present salary when Barbour leaves office in January 2012, Santa Cruz’s second pension would be $12,000 to $13,000 a year.

Barbour announced Col. Michael Berthay’s retirement as head of the patrol June 29.

Two days later, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephen Simpson edited a 17-year-old internal order to allow a retired trooper to head Highway Patrol.

DPS Deputy Commissioner Bruce Breland took a state plane to Gulfport on July 1 and returned with Santa Cruz, according to flight records. Santa Cruz gave his first speech to Highway Patrol higher-ups early that afternoon. At $800 an hour, that trip cost $1,120.

‘‘I had one of the best jobs in the world, and I loved it,’’ Santa Cruz said of working the governor’s security detail. ‘‘But I thought I could make a difference (as head of Highway Patrol). When I leave, I want someone to say, ’Well, he did make a difference.’’’

Because state troopers have their own pension system, they are the only state employees who can return full time while drawing retirement.

DPS employs eight retired troopers and has three on contract, department spokesman Jon Kalahar said. Other agencies typically hire retired troopers in security roles. A trooper who starts at 21 could retire at 46, leaving plenty of working years.

Mississippi has 504 retired troopers drawing benefits from the Highway Patrol’s retirement system. Of those, 38 percent, or 191, also draw a benefit from the Public Employees’ Retirement System or work for a PERS-covered government employer.

Agencies can bring back other employees part time, up to half time at half pay. A requirement that agencies pay into the retirement system for those employees starting July 1, 2011, was part of a bundle of PERS changes passed by legislators and signed by Barbour, who has advocated pension reform.