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Former Munster school superintendents hoping for end to long-running pay dispute

Former Munster school superintendents hoping for end to long-running pay dispute

State charges civil suit against retired Munster administrators

William Pfister, left, and Richard Sopko.

Two former superintendents for the School Town of Munster are urging a Lake County judge to reaffirm they were not overpaid between 1999 and 2014, contrary to the claims of Indiana's attorney general.

At stake, according to William Pfister and Richard Sopko, is nothing less than "a grab for a staggering, scary accumulation of power: the ability to reach back into a literally endless past to 'shake down' public officials for payments that were fully acknowledged and approved of at the time they were issued."

The attorney general's civil lawsuit alleging malfeasance by Pfister and Sopko is back before Lake Circuit Judge Marissa McDermott after the Indiana Supreme Court in April urged her to reconsider her 2018 decision in favor of the former school chiefs, following the high court's ruling in a somewhat similar public corruption case involving the bookkeeper for the Jennings Circuit Court clerk.

McDermott previously determined the attorney general could not seek to recover the alleged overpayments by relying on a 2016 State Board of Accounts special audit covering the entire 15-year period the two men led the Munster school district.

She said all the money paid to the superintendents was authorized in their contracts, which were publicly approved by the school board, and distributed using payment vouchers that also were approved by the school board at public meetings.

Moreover, none of the six prior State Board of Accounts biannual audits of the Munster school district indicated any malfeasance by either Pfister and Sopko, putting the state's attempt to recover the money well outside the statute of limitations, McDermott noted.

Her ruling last year was affirmed in a 3-0 decision by the Indiana Court of Appeals.

However, Attorney General Curtis Hill has argued the statute of limitations for recouping the money did not actually begin to run until he received the final special audit report from the State Board of Accounts on June 8, 2016, and he filed his lawsuit to recover the money within one year.

The attorney general's office is due to submit its response to the superintendents' request for McDermott to reaffirm her prior ruling no later than June 16.

Notably, it cannot be filed under Hill's name because the Indiana Supreme Court suspended his law license until June 17 after the high court determined Hill violated the Professional Conduct Rules for attorneys by groping four women, including a Munster lawmaker, at an Indianapolis bar in 2018.

Pfister and Sopko said they expect Hill will seek unlimited authority for the attorney general to pursue alleged misspending of public funds that occurred an any point in Indiana history, simply by having the State Board of Accounts conduct a new audit that restarts the statute of limitations.

They said through their attorney Jeff Carroll, of the Dyer law firm of Koransky, Bouwer and Poracky, if that is allowed it will require "trashing wide swaths of the Indiana Code from existence."

It also is impossible from a practical standpoint, they said, because the State Board of Accounts already has "destroyed any evidence that might indicate knowledge of the retroactively fashioned as improper."

"This case makes a textbook example of why statutes of limitations exist and are enforced," the superintendents said.

The payments at issue are supplemental retirement funds paid by the Munster school district to annuity accounts controlled by each of the superintendents.

Court records show Pfister received $359,728.94 in alleged overpayments to his annuity, while Sopko collected an alleged overpayment totaling $311,198.75.

Both had contract provisions allowing for annually compounding annuity contributions beginning at 2% of salary, and eventually equaling 42% of Pfister's salary and 36% of Sopko's — money that was paid on top of their regular salaries.

The attorney general claims such high payments on behalf of the superintendents were illegal, and he wants Pfister and Sopko forced to repay the school district three times the amounts they each received, in accordance with an Indiana law aimed at deterring public corruption.

A ruling by McDermott is expected sometime after July 1.

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