By Brian Maass
DENVER (CBS4)– The widow of a Denver firefighter is trying to recover an estimated $70,000 in pension benefits lost due to a simple bureaucratic error 15 years ago.
“The whole process was poorly managed and poorly executed,” said Julie Drennan.
Her husband, Charles Drennan Jr., a division chief with the Denver fire department, was shot and killed Sept. 13, 2001. He had gone to the home of a fellow firefighter to counsel the man through some difficult times. The other firefighter shot and killed Drennan then killed himself.
Drennan’s death was quickly ruled a line of duty death. Under federal law, that meant Julie Drennan and her 11-year-old son should have received her husband’s monthly pension benefits tax free.
But according to records reviewed by CBS4, an apparent communication breakdown between Denver’s Fire Pension Board and the state Fire and Police Pension Association led to Drennan’s pension being inadvertently taxed for the next 14 years.
Julie Drennan estimates the bureaucratic error cost her about $120,000, but she was able to recover part of that by amending her recent tax returns. She now figures the loss to her and her son at about $70,000.
In theory, the Denver Fire Pension board was supposed to notify the FPPA in 2001 that Charlie Drennan’s death was a line of duty death. The FPPA would then distribute the monthly pension payments to Julie Drennan without taxes subtracted. But Dan Slack, Executive Director of the Fire and Police Pension Association, told CBS4 that in 2001, the City of Denver and its fire pension board never notified his agency that Drennan died in the line of duty and that his pension should not be taxed.
“They should have advised us it was to be paid as a tax free benefit,” said Slack. “They did not give us any notification of that.”
So for the next 14 years, taxes were subtracted from the pension. In October 2014, Julie Drennan was doing some research on the issue and learned that her pension should have been tax free.
She contacted the Denver City Attorney’s office which looked into the matter. She later received an email response from Assistant City Attorney Rob McDermott.
On January 16, 2015, McDermott wrote Drennan stating, “We were able to confirm that Chief Drennan did die while on duty. I am not clear why at that time this information was not communicated to the FPPA. Today, we have sent confirmation to the FPPA that Chief Drennan was on duty when he died, and that the benefit should be processed accordingly.”
So 15 years after the death of Charles Drennan, the two agencies communicated correctly and the pension would be distributed on a tax free basis going forward. But what about the interim 14 years in which she had been incorrectly taxed? Drennan wrote the various agencies requesting assistance with the tens of thousands of dollars lost due to the error, but nobody has assumed responsibility.
Dan Slack was asked by CBS4 Investigator Brian Maass, “Who screwed up here?”
He paused and replied, “I think you can draw those conclusions for yourself.”
Slack did not want to point fingers but seemed to imply that the City of Denver dropped the ball in 2001 when it failed to officially notify they FPPA that Drennan’s was a line of duty death.
In 2015, Julie Drennan filed a claim against the City of Denver seeking to be reimbursed for the years of faulty payments. The City responded by invoking the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act writing it was “immune from your claims” and denying responsibility.
Drennan told CBS4, “I think it is unconscionable that the City is hiding behind the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act when denying this claim… it would seem that the laws protecting widows and orphans do not matter in this instance.”
Amber Miller, a spokesperson for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, told CBS4, “We know there was a mistake that occurred. It’s very unclear where that occurred.”
After the CBS4 Investigation began, Denver officials met with Julie Drennan and began sorting through what happened.
Miller was asked, “Do you think morally and ethically she should be made whole?”
“Yes,” replied Miller, ”And that is why we are at the table with her. This is something we want to help her with. We’re optimistic we can figure something out and the city is willing to step up and figure out if we can make up for some of that delta(deficit) that she has.”
Miller pointed out that in 2001, the city of Denver did send the FPPA a copy of Drennan’s death certificate which indicates he was killed “at work.” But Slack, the FPPA director, said that did not really constitute official notification of a line of duty death.
Milller also said that, “Following Asst. Chief Drennan’s tragic death in 2001, Mrs. Drennan applied for survivor benefits using standard forms created by the FPPA. Unfortunately, at that time, there was no place on the FPPA form to indicate whether or not the death occurred in the line of duty.”
Miller went on to say, “It’s terrible that this error in the tax treatment was not discovered for 13 years. We understand Mrs. Drennan’s unhappiness about this situation, and we would never want to compound the pain that she and her family experienced with the loss of Asst. Chief Drennan. The city attorney’s office and the fire department have met with Mrs. Drennan, and we are researching if and how we can help her. While we do not yet know what the outcome will be, we want to do everything possible to aid Mrs. Drennan, whose family has served our city so faithfully.”
Julie Drennan is baffled about how the nature of her husband’s death seemed to escape the notice of the FPPA.
“They all knew. They all knew,” said Drennan. “I simply want to recoup the monies that I have lost.”
She says her husband would likely be “very disappointed” in the way things have been handled. “He would have wanted his family to receive the benefits for his pension that came through his hard work.”