By Jared Sichel | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s pension system could be doling out thousands of dollars each month to jailed sex offenders.
But because the state has no records on how many felons are eligible to receive their government pensions, no one really knows.
An apparent shortcoming in state law that allows sex offenders to collect state pensions has irked many lawmakers amid reports that disgraced former Penn State University football coach and jailed sex offender Jerry Sandusky likely will continue to receive a $5,000-a-month pension from the Commonwealth.
Sandusky, 68, was charged in November with 52 counts of sexual abuse of minors. On June 22, a jury found him guilty on 45 of those counts, some of which occurred on the Penn State campus during his tenure as a state-employed coach. He faces a minimum of 60 years behind bars when he is sentenced this summer.
A right-to-know request filed by the PA Independent shows that the State Employees’ Retirement System maintains no records on how many felons who committed crimes while employed by the state receive their taxpayer-supported government pensions.
“Those records do not exist,” read the denied request. “SERS does not maintain a record that compiles such information.”
Additionally, people drawing state pensions who are convicted of a felony are under no legal obligation to alert SERS to their status.
Which former state employees can and cannot receive their pensions following a conviction is laid out in the little-known Public Employee Forfeiture Act of 1978, also known as Act 140.
Act 140 automatically terminates the pension of state employees who are convicted of, plead guilty to, or don’t contest any one of 22 specific crimes, most of which are related to various forms of corruption including extortion, bribes, theft and perjury.
Sex offenses committed while employed by the state are not one of those 22 crimes.
Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, said he hopes to move legislation this fall that would automatically terminate the pension of any state employee who commits a crime that requires registration under “Megan’s Law”, which requires the state to maintain a registry of convicted sex offenders living in Pennsylvania.
“People that are this sick and demented to do this, taking away their pension likely isn’t enough to stop them,” DePasquale said. “But (that) doesn’t mean we should reward them with a pension.”
Last October, before Sandusky’s arrest, state Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, introduced Senate Bill 1290, which, if enacted, would have terminated Sandusky’s pension and those of all other sex offenders convicted after the bill was signed into law. SB 1290 has been sitting in the Senate Finance Committee since the winter.
Cameron Kline, Farnese’s communications director, said the Philadelphia Democrat hopes to amend Act 140 this fall but added that passage of SB 1290 before elections is possible only “if it’s something Republicans want to move.”
Act 140 was passed in a decade in which the Justice Department ranked Pennsylvania as the most corrupt state in the Union. From kickbacks and bribes, to mail fraud and illegal campaign contributions, Pennsylvania politicians were notoriously crooked.
Vince Carocci, who began his 23-year tenure in state politics in 1971 and was the press secretary for former Gov. Robert Casey from 1989 to 1994, said that Act 140 was a direct result of that decade’s scandals.
“It was an era where things weren’t running well and it naturally lent itself to this kind of reform,” Carocci said.
So while Sandusky likely will keep his pension, former Penn State Vice President Gary Schultz and former Athletic Director Tim Curley would lose theirs if convicted of lying about their role in covering up Sandusky’s crimes. Schultz and Curley were both indicted in November on charges of perjury and failure to report Sandusky’s crimes. No trial date has been set.
Tammy Lerner, vice president of the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, said there could be reason to terminate Sandusky’s pension given the possibility that he used his position as a state-employed football coach to have access to some of his victims.
“It would seem like his tenure with the state was fraudulent,” Lerner said. “He was taking money from the state so he could have access to kids. When we look at all the evidence, is it really all that crazy to think that possibly could have happened?”
Lerner cautions, though, that any hasty attempt to change pension law to punish sex offenders may inadvertently harm their victims.
“If the only source of financial recompense to victims from their perpetrator is via a state pension, then yes, they should continue to receive it with the provision that there is a state mandate to automatically disperse the funds to the victim,” she said.
But convicts are free to use their money with very few restrictions. Department of Corrections policy says prisoners can purchase approved personal items with money that is leftover after accounting for court costs and legal debts. They also can purchase gifts for friends and relatives.