$365,000 extra, and counting

Craig Bazzani, former University of Illinois vice president for business and finance. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)

When high-ranking University of Illinois administrator Craig Bazzani retired in 2002, the board of trustees praised him for his financial expertise, his efforts to modernize the university's operations and his knowledge of the state's political system.

There was no mention of police work.

Yet Bazzani, the university's longtime vice president for business and finance, is drawing a pension not as a regular university employee but under the more lucrative pension formula intended for university police officers and firefighters.

As a result, he was able to retire with full benefits at age 55 and has collected roughly $365,000 more in pension payouts over the last decade than he would have under the regular formula, according to a Tribune analysis based on his pension records. During that time, he's received about $2.7 million from the State Universities Retirement System of Illinois, or SURS.

The case of Bazzani's unique pension is yet another example of how changes to the state's convoluted pension laws allow certain people to benefit from perks that arguably were not intended for them. Before a tweak to the law made Bazzani eligible, SURS had repeatedly rejected his application for a police-based pension, even after he obtained the supplemental title of director of police.

"By no stretch of the imagination could the SURS Board conclude that the General Assembly intended that the Vice President for Business Affairs ... should be entitled to the more liberal retirement formula which is applicable to police officers and firefighters," SURS' former longtime executive director, Edward Gibala, wrote in 1988 while working as a consultant.

The following year, a 23-word definition of a university police officer was added to a sprawling piece of pension legislation, allowing Bazzani to qualify for a policeman's pension.

His pension payout this year will be about $312,000 — more than he ever made working for the university system, because of compounding cost-of-living increases. That makes him one of the highest-paid annuity recipients in the state. The only university retirees with higher pensions are former physicians at the University of Illinois' medical center, and none retired as early as age 55.

Bazzani also is drawing a salary of roughly $240,000 a year from the University of Illinois Foundation, the university's private fundraising arm, which hired him two months after his 2002 retirement. As a senior adviser, he has helped secure millions in government and private funding for the university.

The SURS pension fund, meanwhile, has less than half of the assets it needs to cover the benefits it's required to provide.

Bazzani, now 65, says he deserves his pension because he coordinated security at board meetings, authorized arrests of student protesters and worked with auditors on internal investigations, among other policelike duties. He attributed his high payout to the fact that he started as a vice president at just 36 years old and had a meteoric rise with increasingly more responsibilities and pay, which increased an average of 9.3 percent a year.

He said he knew nothing about the change in the law until he received a letter in 1991 informing him that he was eligible for a police pension.

"I would have had to be on the other side of an idiot given my profile in state government and for the service (at the university) to have anything to do with the passage of those laws," Bazzani said during a three-hour interview at the U. of I. Foundation offices.

Well-known in Urbana-Champaign and Springfield, Bazzani has an annual public policy lecture series named after him and has made donations to fund student scholarships and the university's art museum, among other gifts. He said he has turned down salary raises equivalent to about $110,500 since he joined the foundation.

"There's nothing I have done ever in my career that has been unethical," he said. "It sickens me a little bit to have to personally go through this."

Police pension perk

Bazzani said his motives in requesting a police pension were unselfish. He said he and other university officials wanted to ensure that future employees who had "bundled" or varied responsibilities also be recognized appropriately by the retirement system.

He first tried to qualify for a police officer's pension in 1988, five years after he was given oversight of some of the university system's law enforcement functions. When he was rebuffed by SURS staff, who argued that Bazzani did not do actual police work, university officials gave him the title of director of police. Again SURS rejected his application.

"The major thing was the recognition by the retirement system of the legitimacy of the appointments coming from the board," Bazzani said. "I was the first one through the door."