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Friday, September 20, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pension Lifts Auditor To Top Pay -- Old Law Lets Graham `Double Dip'

OLYMPIA - Move over, Don James. Forget that high-priced University of Washington Medical School faculty.

For the next year, at least, the highest-paid state employee is one of its most obscure elected officials: State Auditor Robert V. Graham, who since May 1 has been simultaneously collecting his regular salary and a pension that total $155,084 a year.

Graham, who during an interview yesterday announced he will not seek an eighth term in 1992, is using a legal provision that allows a handful of elected officials to begin collecting their retirement benefits at age 70 while still working.

In Graham's case, that means he is receiving his regular monthly paycheck of $6,483.33 and a pension check for $6,440.40, said Linda Sheler, deputy state auditor.

It appears Graham is not costing the state extra money. If he retired, he still would receive his pension and his replacement would get the salary.

But news of his double-dip couldn't have come at a more awkward time. Earlier this week, the state announced it was facing a $223 million deficit that would force budget cuts in every agency.

While Gov. Booth Gardner's office didn't directly criticize Graham, officials there distanced themselves from the fellow Democrat.

"Our feeling is that if Booth was in the same situation, though it's legal, he wouldn't have made the same decision," said Gardner spokesman Carlos Pedraza. "We wouldn't be surprised if Bob Graham, in reflecting on his action, eventually saw it in a different light."

But Graham, contacted while on vacation in Alaska, said he has no plans to forgo his pension check during his last 16 months or so in office.

"I saw this under the light of a law passed by the Legislature," said Graham, who has served as auditor since 1965 and worked for the state since 1948. "I felt under an employment contract, I was entitled to these benefits and I felt no compunction in taking it."

Conceding his decision might have a public-relations backlash, Graham said he and other elected officials went several years without any raises and that, at one point, he made less than dozens of employees in his own agency. "You take the good with the bad," he said.

Graham's pension payments vault him into elite company. Philip Fialkow, dean of the UW medicine school, draws $148,404 annually as the highest salaried state employee. He's followed by Husky football coach Don James, who pulls in $141,576.

At least one other elected official - Port of Tacoma Commissioner Robert Earley, who receives a $645.80 monthly pension check - is collecting his pension while still in office, according to Hector Gonzalez, a manager for the state Department of Retirement systems. Longtime Seattle District Court Judge Bill Lewis, who stepped down last January, was receiving a $1,742.95 monthly pension during his last few years on the bench. While pension officials say there is no way to know how many people have taken advantage of the law, there aren't likely to be many more cases.

Only those who were serving in elected office between 1967 and 1973 could benefit, Gonzalez said.

In 1967, the Legislature amended the state retirement law so elected officials could continue at their post beyond the then-mandatory retirement age of 70, but still begin collecting their pension. But the mandatory retirement age was later junked altogether and officials had to wait until their actual retirement to begin receiving pension checks.

Gonzalez said the state Supreme Court has ruled that employees must be allowed to choose the most favorable retirement plan in effect during their tenure.

"You can't diminish anyone's retirement rights. We can't take anything back that we promised. It's a contractual agreement," said Gonzales. "Mr. Graham has the same right to take advantage of retirement laws as anyone else. And he's doing it."

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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