Despite criminal convictions that ended his long career as a Chicago cop, William Pruente pleaded with the city’s police pension board to let him get his annual pension of more than $46,000.
“This is the only thing I can hopefully hold onto,” Pruente told the pension board’s members, according to a transcript of the board’s Nov. 25 meeting that WBEZ obtained.
“I’m 58 years old and I have to start all over again,” Pruente said. “I lost everything.”
State law dictates that police officers who are convicted of felonies in the line of duty should be stripped of their pensions. And three years ago, Pruente was found guilty of perjury, official misconduct and obstruction of justice. A state appellate panel rejected his attempt to overturn his convictions last year.
Still, at their November meeting, the pension board members voted 4 to 2 in his favor after Pruente and his lawyer made a forceful appeal to let him have his pension anyway.
As the meeting ended, one of the trustees who voted in Pruente’s favor wished him good luck and told him, “You’re good to go,” according to the transcript. Another board member said, “You got your pension.”
But just a few weeks later, at the board’s next meeting, the panel abruptly “rescinded” that decision, records show.
Now, the pension board is set to reconsider the matter at Thursday’s meeting of the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago.
Three members of the eight-person pension board are aides to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. In a statement to WBEZ, Lightfoot pension board appointee Stephen Skardon said he was in the minority of trustees who voted to deny Pruente’s application for his pension in November “based on his felony convictions” and state law.
Skardon, who is senior advisor and counsel to Lightfoot, noted that the Illinois pension code “states no benefits should be provided for anyone convicted of any felony relating to or arising out of or in connection with his service as a policeman.”
“A conspiracy to lie”
Pruente became a Chicago cop in 1995 but was convicted because of false testimony he gave about a drug bust he was part of in Glenview in June 2013.
In that incident, Pruente and other Chicago officers were working together with police in the Glenview when they made a traffic stop. Pruente testified that he did not search the vehicle and arrest the suspect until he had “detected a strong odor of cannabis” while he waited for the driver to search for his driver’s license and insurance card.
At a hearing in the suspect’s case in 2014, though, a police video camera recording surfaced that rebutted the stories of Pruente and other officers involved in the sting.
The video showed that Pruente, in fact, had immediately forced the suspect from the vehicle, patted him down and put him in a squad car before returning to search the car, records show.
The emergence of the video led to the dismissal of the drug case, and the judge in the trial “characterized the officers’ conduct as ‘outrageous,’ found that all the officers had lied on the stand and there was a conspiracy to lie,” according to court documents.
The following year, Pruente was indicted on five counts of perjury, two counts of official misconduct and one count of obstruction of justice.
He was convicted on all charges in a bench trial in February 2017 in Cook County Circuit Court and sentenced to 30 months’ felony probation and 250 hours of community service.
Last May, a three-judge state appellate panel affirmed the ruling unanimously. In that opinion, the judges wrote that “sufficient evidence showed that [Pruente] knowingly gave false, material testimony … and defendant’s false testimony impeded the administration of justice.”
Four weeks later, on May 29, Pruente applied for his pension. Fund officials told him they would have to hold a hearing in his case, due to his convictions.
“The system failed me”
During that hearing in November, Pruente’s lawyer said denying him a pension would be an “extraordinary punishment” after a “career of unblemished public service.”
The lawyer, James E. Thompson of Chicago, argued that Pruente gave the testimony that landed him in trouble when he was not on duty and that he had appeared at a suburban county courthouse in civilian clothes, having driven there in his own car.
Thompson said Pruente got in trouble during his testimony because of a “poor state’s attorney who was inexperienced” and did not properly prepare him for the video that surfaced. He also said Pruente “did not intentionally say something that was misleading” while under oath.
Taking away his pension, the lawyer said, would amount to “a death sentence” for Pruente.
“He cannot go back 20 years and start contributing to Social Security,” Thompson said, adding that the loss of his pension would threaten Pruente’s “ability to economically survive in his retirement years.”
Pruente then testified before the pension board, making an even more emotional appeal to the trustees.
“I lost everything on this,” Pruente said as he began his remarks, according to the transcript of the meeting. “I was a dedicated policeman … I lost my house, my marriage.”
He detailed the incident that led to his conviction, saying, “There was nothing malicious. We didn’t do anything wrong. We conducted a lawful stop and made a lawful arrest. We did make an honest mistake testifying. I’ve testified in hundreds of cases. I mean, I’ve made mistakes before, and they gave you a report or something.”
Pruente and his lawyer also suggested to the pension fund that the case against him and the other officers was influenced by the political environment at the time.
Thompson noted that then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was locked in an ultimately futile election campaign for another term. During that same period, the city released a police dash-cam video of another Chicago officer firing 16 shots into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Pruente invoked the McDonald case at the November hearing on his pension application.
“All this time we were warned, ‘You’ve just got to grind this out and ride out the storm,’ and four weeks before the Laquan McDonald video came out, we were charged,” Pruente said.
Pruente concluded his remarks to the pension board by saying, “I loved everything about my time on the force. The system failed me and I hope that you do not.”
“The best gift”
Pruente’s appeal swayed all four pension board members who are elected to represent officers. The four who voted to give him his pension were Officer Thomas Benya, retired cop Michael Lappe, Lt. Edward Wodnicki and Sgt. Brian Wright, records show.
“It’s the best gift you can give me,” Pruente told them after the vote. “I thank all of you.”
“You deserve it,” Wodnicki replied.
First-term City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin also has a seat on the police pension board and, like Skardon, the Lightfoot aide, she voted against giving Pruente his pension at the November meeting.
“After listening to the discussion pertaining to the Pruente application, it was clear to me what my vote should be on the matter,” Conyears-Ervin said in a statement to WBEZ.
But two of Lightfoot’s three appointees to the police pension board were absent for the meeting when Pruente’s case was heard.
City Budget Director Susie Park and Lightfoot’s chief financial officer, Jennie Huang Bennett, could not make it that day because they had “duties and responsibilities regarding the passage of Mayor Lightfoot’s 2020 budget, which was being voted on the following day,” said the police pension fund’s executive director, Erin Keane.
On Dec. 9, WBEZ sent an open-records request to the police pension fund for all documents in Pruente’s case. The fund initially declined to produce any of the records but relented earlier this month, after WBEZ appealed the denial of its request to the Illinois attorney general’s office, which reviews disputes over access to public documents.
And at the next pension board meeting on Dec. 20, Keane said all seven of the trustees who were there voted to rescind the previous decision to grant Pruente his pension. That move was made “in order to allow for further legal review,” according to a statement from the pension board. Huang Bennett was the only one of the eight trustees who missed the December meeting.
Keane also told WBEZ that the November vote in Pruente’s favor was an “oral decision” and it was “not final until such time as a formal written order is approved and published.”
The pension fund’s general counsel, Justin Kugler, sent a letter to Pruente on Dec. 31 informing him of the decision to rescind giving him a pension, at least temporarily. Kugler wrote that the pension board trustees could at last make up their minds at Thursday’s meeting.
“The board intends … to render a final decision and issue an appropriate written order,” Kugler wrote.
Keane said Pruente’s initial pension checks would be for $3,858.24 a month — or $46,298.88 for the first year.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @dmihalopoulos.