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October 4, 2012 | By | Posted in Legislature

Lawmaker: Public officials, employees don’t deserve pensions if they are felons

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

KELLER: Public employees and officials should not receive their pensions, if they are convicted of a felony.

HARRISBURG — Former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky won’t lose his public pension, despite being convicted of multiple sexual abuse charges.

Neither would a teacher convicted of assaulting his spouse or a police officer of a drug offense.

Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Well, Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act only strips public officials and state employees of their pensions, if they are convicted of crimes related to their public office.

But, state Rep. Fred Keller, R-Union, doesn’t believe the law is strong enough. He wants to take away their pensions from the State Employees’ Retirement System and Public School Employees’ Retirement System, if they are found guilty of any felony or violent crime.

“It’s a matter of good judgment. It’s a shame we have to legislate that,” he told PA Independent.

“If the taxpayers are going to pay your salary, and they’re going to contribute money to your pension, you shouldn’t be violating their trust.”

One legislator, however, says the current law is fair and plans to oppose House Bill 2469 should it reach the House floor next week. This proposal is one of the more expansive probes on pension forfeiture to come through this legislative session.

VITALI: Changing the forfeiture law could would be unfair.

State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, who voted against the bill when it passed out of the House State Government Committee, said those who commit crimes are subject to the court system and its tools and could be dismissed from their job for particularly bad behavior, he said.

“I don’t think that it’s just to simply, after many years of service, take away a pension for something not related to the office,” he said.

He said requiring forfeiture for crimes unrelated to public office wouldn’t dispense justice equally, as those who are more vested in the system could stand to lose more than a newer employee.

“Two people who did the same misdeeds and one loses 30 years worth of pensions, and another loses virtually no pension because he doesn’t have one,” he said.

Employees can appeal the forfeiture through the state, as is the case with former state Sen. Robert Mellow, who pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges in May.

Keller’s bill is one of a handful of pending bills that would amend the state’s forfeiture laws. His bill has not been scheduled for a House vote and only four voting days remain until the session ends Oct. 18.

Senate Bill 1290, sponsored by from state Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, would add any crime requiring sex offender registration to the list of punishable offenses. Senate Bill 1114, introduced by state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, would add crimes of child pornography.

Both bills have yet to move from the Senate Finance Committee.

But on Wednesday, that committee did vote out a Senate bill retooling the definition of “student” in the state’s forfeiture act. Senate Bill 1595 would apply pension forfeitures to crimes against students who are being instructed, mentored, supervised or counseled, clarifying the existing language.

Public servants are held to higher standards in some other states when it comes to keeping their pensions. In Oklahoma, public pensions can be revoked for felony convictions. In Maryland, pensions of state legislators can be lost if they are convicted of any felony while in office.

In West Virginia, forfeiture applies to those whose service is deemed “less than honorable.” But overall, many states revoke pensions for crimes related to public office, similar to Pennsylvania’s law.

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Melissa Daniels is a reporter for PA Independent. She can be reached at 717-350-0962 or Melissa@PAIndependent.com

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