Tapia could cash in on GERS benefits
Published: September 13, 2013
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
ST. THOMAS - Officials confirmed Thursday that, within a week of being arrested on drug trafficking charges, Roberto Tapia, who was chief of enforcement for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, submitted a letter of resignation to the department, pre-empting his termination and leaving him free to cash in on his government retirement benefits.
DPNR Commissioner Alicia Barnes said Tapia had submitted a letter on May 24, and that there was nothing she could do to block Tapia from receiving his retirement benefits. The matter is now the purview of the Government Employees Retirement System, she said.
"Any government employee is entitled to retire," Barnes said.
Tapia has since been indicted, along with six other men, including V.I. Police Sgt. Angelo Hill, on drug trafficking, racketeering and corruption charges. The 35-count indictment alleges that Tapia used his DPNR-issued boat and vehicle in furtherance of his criminal activity, that he sought a $40,000 bribe in exchange for a DPNR contract and that he illegally sold DPNR vessel engines and pocketed the proceeds.
Upon learning of the charges against him, Barnes initially suspended Tapia without pay.
Howard Forbes was installed as acting chief of enforcement, and he remains in that capacity, according to DPNR spokesman Jamal Nielsen.
Barnes said she conducted an internal investigation into the matter, with a concluding recommendation that Tapia be terminated, but the letter came before any formal action could be taken by the department.
"As we were moving forward with receiving the documents in order for the termination process to be fully engaged, we were informed that he had submitted documentation to retire," Barnes said. She explained that the documents she required to initiate termination, per the instructions of the Office of Collective Bargaining, were arrest warrants and charging documents, which she had discussed getting with the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Nielsen said Tapia's letter stated that the effective date of his retirement was May 20, which would have backdated the notice to the Monday after Drug Enforcement Administration agents said they confiscated 7.72 kilograms of cocaine from a backpack Tapia was carrying as he disembarked at the Red Hook ferry terminal on May 17. Agents took him into custody that evening.
The arrest was the first half of a drug sting that court records show was the culmination of six Title III wire taps, intercepted phone calls and aerial and ground surveillance by federal authorities, who believe Tapia was a key player in a drug ring that supplied cocaine to a buyer in Puerto Rico from September 2012 to May.
However, according to motions filed in his defense, Tapia may have been a target of the Drug Enforcement Administration as early as 2008.
Nielsen said the resignation was made official June 25.
However, Austin Nibbs, administrator of the Government Employees Retirement System, said Thursday that he did not think Tapia currently is receiving benefits, as Nibbs had not seen any application for Tapia come into the system.
Nibbs said Thursday he had not heard anything about Tapia's notice of retirement to DPNR before being contacted by The Daily News.
"So, what you are telling me now about him is that instead of terminating him, he retired. What is wrong with that?" Nibbs said.
"As far as I know that had not been done. I am not aware of it, and if it had been done, I think I would be aware of it," Nibbs said of Tapia's submission of a retirement letter and application for pension benefits.
Tapia became chief of enforcement for DPNR in Feb. 2012, after serving as acting director of enforcement for about two and half years. He was a V.I. police officer from October 1996 until March 2007. He began his government career as a conservation enforcement officer in 1988. At the time of his arrest, Tapia's annual salary with DPNR was $80,000, according to information supplied by Government House.
Nibbs said that there is nothing to legally prohibit Tapia, as the target of a federal narcotics and public corruption investigation, from collecting the benefits he accrued in his 20-plus years of law enforcement service. Further, there is nothing statutorily barring Tapia from collecting a pension if he is convicted, according to Nibbs.
Even if Tapia had been terminated by DPNR, Nibbs said, he paid into the system and would be entitled to a benefits package as would any other GERS member.
"There are no laws that prohibits any felons from collecting pensions," Nibbs said of the potential conviction of Tapia.
Barnes said Thursday that the DPNR vessel that federal authorities confiscated to process as evidence in the case has not yet been returned to the department.
According to an order setting conditions of release filed May 23, Tapia remains on house arrest with electronic monitoring after posting a $250,000 bond.
- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email email@example.com.