MADISON, Wis. (AP) - State officials opened an investigation Wednesday into whether University of Wisconsin-Green Bay's chancellor re-hired a retired administrator illegally, allowing him to collect his six-figure salary on top of his retirement benefits.
UWGB Chancellor Tom Harden told The Associated Press he has done nothing wrong. But the chairman of the state Assembly's higher education committee, Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, cancelled a public hearing on a bill that would allow UWGB and several other state schools to increase tuition until he gets his own answers.
"The ... situation raises serious doubt about the leadership of UW-Green Bay and the bill authorizing those same administrators to increase tuition on students," Nass said.
WISN talk radio show host Mark Belling first reported on Tuesday that UWGB Vice Chancellor of Business and Finance Tom Maki retired in mid-March, during the height of the debate over Gov. Scott Walker's plan to force public workers to contribute more to their health insurance and pensions and strip them of all their collective bargaining rights.
Harden rehired him a month later, a move that allowed Maki to start collecting his $131,000 annual salary again on top of his retirement benefits. The Department of Employee Trust Funds, which handles retirement benefits for public workers, estimates that benefits for an employee with a $131,000 salary would amount to between $48,000 and $70,000 per year.
State law permits the re-hiring recent retirees as long as they're out of the job for 30 days and they don't strike a deal before they retire that they'll be re-hired. About 1,100 retirees have been rehired this year alone, said DETF spokeswoman Shawn Smith.
DETF will investigate whether Maki ever really left his job, she said.
"There cannot be an existing agreement for re-employment before the actual termination," she said. "It's too soon to know if it was a valid termination or not but we are going to look into it."
Harden, reached by phone, said he did everything by the book. He said he and Maki did not agree before Maki retired that he would be rehired. Maki's office was never cleared out, he said, but that was mostly because Harden's assistant filled the vice chancellor spot temporarily.
Harden felt it was important to have an experienced financial chief in place that could shepherd the school through deep cuts in state aid looming in the state budget and decided he wanted Maki back. He didn't launch any kind of search for any other candidates or post the position - a move he said was completely within his power as chancellor.
"I believe I have the discretion. That's typical of how you hire a retired annuitant," he said. "In this case, the situation was specific and important enough that I retain Tom Maki in this position."
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UW System spokesman David Giroux said no system policy mandates searches for every position. At the campus level, the most common practice is to post jobs publicly. However, chancellors can waive that policy as circumstances dictate, Giroux said.
Maki did not want to comment, UWGB spokesman Chris Sampson said. A message left at a residential listing for Maki wasn't immediately returned.
Sampson said re-hiring retirees helps fill crucial positions quickly with skilled, experienced people and saves the state money because it no longer has to pay for their benefits, which are already covered through their retirement plan. Harden re-hired Maki as a limited-term employee, meaning he serves at the chancellor's pleasure, and both Harden and Maki view the position as a transition to retirement, Sampson said.
Nass, meanwhile, issued a news release Wednesday acknowledging Belling's report and demanding answers about the re-hire. Nass' spokesman, Mike Mikalsen, said Nass wants to know whether any deal was in place and whether Maki technically ever left the position.
Nass canceled a public hearing scheduled for Thursday on a bill that would allow the Board of Regents to raise tuition at UWGB, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Parkside and the state's two-year campuses. The bill will remain in limbo until Nass gets answers from UWGB, Mikalsen said.
The measure could be a crucial tool for a number of schools looking to offset cuts in state aid. The state budget Walker signed in June eliminated $125 million in funding for the system in each of the next two years. The bill would allow the Board of Regents to raise tuition at UWGB, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Parkside and the state's two-year campuses more than 5.5 percent.
The bill's author, Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, didn't immediately return a message. Rep. Louis Molepske, D-Stevens Point, sits on the Assembly higher education committee with Nass. He said the bill deserves a hearing.
"(Stalling the bill) really is not a good way of expressing displeasure with one administrator at UWGB," Molepske said. "Stevens Point and other comprehensive schools can't wait any longer for more flexibility."
Harden said he had no response to Nass' tactics, saying UWGB has not decided whether to raise tuition. Giroux said only that hearings get cancelled and rescheduled often in Madison.