Following his recent no contest plea to a felony charge, Paul Blackwell is “likely eligible” to receive the same benefits as other employees who retire from the city, according to city officials.
According to City Administrator Jennifer Moody, Blackwell submitted his letter of retirement to the city while the city’s internal investigation was “still pending,” meaning he officially left his job as “retired pending disciplinary action.”
According to Moody, Blackwell’s letter of intent to retire was delivered to the city before any city officials were aware that he had entered into his plea of no contest to the Class C felony of tampering with evidence. Blackwell entered the plea to Coffee County Circuit Court Judge Craig Johnson on April 22.
As a result of the plea, the former police chief received a four-year suspended sentence with deferred judgement, meaning he will not have to serve any jail time, provided he abides by the terms of his probation. Once the four years have passed, Blackwell can petition to the court to have the conviction expunged from his record.
“It was important for us to understand all of the facts and weigh the potential benefits or consequences before determining how to classify the separation,” Moody said. “Ultimately, it was classified as retired pending disciplinary action.”
Because he chose to “separate from employment with the city” pending the internal investigation, he would still be eligible to receive city-funded benefits post-retirement.
When asked for a comment, Blackwell’s lawyer, Terry Frizzell, told The News Blackwell had “already made his statement” and did not feel the need to comment further.
The only thing Blackwell may not be eligible for is his state-funded retirement under the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS).
According to state statute, if a public employee enrolled with TCRS is convicted of a felony related to their job, they forfeit the right to collect retirement benefits from TCRS.
Section 8-35-124 of the Tennessee Code Annotated says “no employee … of the state or any political subdivision thereof shall be entitled to receive retirement benefits from the Tennessee consolidated retirement system … if such employee or official is convicted in any court of this state of a felony arising out of the employee’s or official’s employment or official capacity, constituting malfeasance in office.”
This section of state law also specifically states that a plea of no contest to a felony charge would exclude the employee in question from receiving TCRS retirement benefits.
Because Blackwell’s no contest plea is related to his job as chief of police, the city believes this statute may apply to his case.
Additionally, Moody said, the city will not make a determination related to Blackwell’s retirement benefits due to that state law.
“It is a decision that will be made by TCRS in compliance with state law,” Moody said.
According to the same statute, the city is obligated to report Blackwell’s no contest plea to the state treasury department, which oversees TCRS. Moody said the city has already reported the matter but has not yet heard back from state officials regarding his status or eligibility.
According to Public Information Officer Winston Brooks, Blackwell is entitled to health insurance through the city as a retired employee.
Search for a new chief
According to Moody, she was “at the beginning of the process” of searching for a new chief of police as of Friday, May 3.
When asked whether or not she would recommend the city board promote Acting Chief Jason Ferrell to the permanent post, Moody said she was “planning for a competitive recruitment” for the job.
“I will be looking for the most qualified candidate for the job, whether he or she is an experienced candidate from within the department or from another law enforcement agency,” Moody said.
Erin McCullough may be reached at email@example.com.