SALISBURY — Over the objections of Salisbury officials, retired former police Chief David L'Esperance has been granted a nearly $69,000 pension by the Essex County Retirement Board.
L'Esperance, 51, of Seabrook, retired in January amid an investigation into allegations of criminal activity, including accusations he traded drugs and favors for sex.
No charges resulted from those original allegations, which came from women who had criminal histories themselves. However, L'esperance has been charged with felony and misdemeanor counts of theft brought by Salisbury police based on allegations that surfaced during the investigation.
The retirement board's decision to approve L'Esperance's pension followed a July 25 hearing, which was held in executive, or closed, session at the former chief's request, according to Essex Regional Retirement System executive director Chuck Kostro.
The five-member retirement board reconvened in open session following the hearing and, without seeking public comment, voted 3-2 to grant L'Esperance an annual $68,957 pension.
The July 25 hearing was the third hearing on L'Esperance's pension application, which he submitted April 3. The two earlier hearings were continued after Salisbury officials intervened, hoping the retirement board would postpone acting on the pension until the allegations and charges against L'Esperance were resolved.
Salisbury officials sought to delay the decision because of the pending theft charges against L'Esperance, who served as chief for four years.
On May 20, Town Manager Neil Harrington wrote to the retirement board requesting it defer action for 60 days, so that the town could complete its investigations into the former chief's tenure, due to its suspicion that L'Esperance may have taken part in practices that could be criminal in nature. The retirement board complied, postponing its hearing to July 13.
On July 11, Harrington again wrote to the board requesting the July 13 hearing be postponed due to the four theft charges Salisbury brought against L'Esperance, and for which he had been arraigned that day. Harrington explained that the charges allege "L'Esperance engaged in four instances of larceny during his tenure as chief of police. Three of these instances involved the theft of property from crime scenes and one instance involved the improper acquisition and subsequent disposition of a town-owned vehicle worth in excess of $250, making this alleged offense a felony."
The retirement board again postponed its hearing, this time to July 25. Harrington submitted backup reports and documentation regarding the investigations by retired Salem police Chief Robert St. Pierre, who was hired by the manager to conduct the probe into L'Esperance, as well as evidence regarding the theft allegations.
Harrington also appeared at the July 25 hearing to press the town's position to the retirement board in person. The town manager once again asked the retirement board to continue to defer its decision on L'Esperance's pension application until after the theft charges are resolved. Harrington said that given that one of the charges is a felony, a conviction could prohibit L'Esperance from being awarded his pension.
Also at the hearing was Jack Collins, an attorney representing L'Esperance, Harrington said.
"His attorney said (L'Esperance) hasn't been convicted of anything yet," Harrington said. "He said absent a conviction, the board had no right to deny (L'Esperance's) pension request."
Harrington said that during the hearing, members of the retirement board said that even with their approval, should L'Esperance be convicted in the future, the board could revisit his pension.
According to Kostro, a person could lose his or her pension if convicted of a crime related to dereliction of duty or a crime of moral turpitude. Should that occur, the individual would be refunded his or her contribution into the retirement system without interest, which is required by law.
Kostro said the retirement board is typically notified by the district attorney's office when individuals with pensions are convicted. Although he's been executive director of the retirement board for just six months. Kostro said he is not aware of a situation in which an individual's pension was rescinded after it was approved due to a subsequent criminal conviction.
Harrington said Salisbury would have saved money if L'Esperance's pension had been denied, since the town's annual pension contribution is based on its retirement obligations.
Retirees' pensions are computed on a sliding scale based on age and years of service. According to Kostro, in general, police personnel are listed in group four of the system's employees. In group four, to qualify for the maximum pension, police personnel must be at least 55 years old and have a minimum 32 years of service. The maximum pension any person can receive is 80 percent of his or her salary.
Harrington said that when L'Esperance retired, his salary, which included a Quinn Bill supplement, was about $130,000 a year, or $63.15 per hour.
L'Esperance, who was 51 at the time of his retirement, had at least 24 years of service, four years in Salisbury, preceded by 20 years on the West Newbury police force.