STUMP » Articles » Public Pension Watch: Convicted Politicians and Their Pensions » 23 February 2015, 01:31

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Public Pension Watch: Convicted Politicians and Their Pensions  


23 February 2015, 01:31

Well, not only politicians, but one can definitely make the argument that anybody who works for government is a politician.

First, from Georgia:

Convicted of extortion and illegal gambling, Savannah’s former police chief will continue to collect a pension worth nearly $130,000 a year while he serves 7 ½ years in federal prison.

That comes to more than $970,000 before taxes.

Some City Council members have called for revoking or slashing the retirement benefits of former Savannah-Chatham County Police Chief Willie Lovett, who was sentenced by a U.S. District Court judge earlier this month. But City Attorney Brooks Stillwell told council members Thursday a state law that forces convicted public employees to surrender a chunk of their pensions can’t be applied to the ex-chief.

City officials may ask Georgia’s attorney general for a second opinion.

“We all agree, as does the community, that this is a miscarriage of justice,” said City Council member Mary Ellen Sprague. “For him to get such a huge pension is just incredibly troubling.”

I understand the argument of not necessarily taking away an official’s pension just because he was convicted of some criminality — I mean, should someone lose their pension over drug possession, for example?

Now, if it involves an abuse of their office…

During his trial last fall, prosecutors said Lovett pocketed more than $70,000 from operators of carnival trailers used as a front for illegal gambling in Savannah during holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Day. Lovett was accused of taking cash in exchange for letting the gambling trailers stay open for a decade. That included Lovett’s four years as police chief, until he retired abruptly in September 2013. The ex-chief was indicted about nine months later.

Ah. Yeah. I don’t think there’s a problem of yanking this guy’s pension.

Except, you know, legal ones:

Why is there a free pass for state and local government workers employed before the pension forfeiture laws were enacted? Once public workers are hired and guaranteed certain pension benefits, they can’t legally be taken away later.

“The simple answer is it’s basically a contract issue,” said Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association. “You cannot change the rules to their detriment.”

Savannah Mayor Edna Jackson asked the city attorney Thursday to seek a second opinion on the ex-chief’s pension from Attorney General Sam Olens. Other council members suggested filing a lawsuit to recoup city resources Lovett used for criminal gain.

“There may be nothing we can do,” the mayor said.

That’s true.

But let’s check out a different case in my own backyard, New York and the notorious Shel Silver:

Disgraced former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was indicted on federal corruption charges Thursday — and authorities vowed to hold his hefty pension hostage if he’s convicted and can’t pay back his alleged ill-gotten gains.

For the past 15 years, Silver “engaged in a secrete and corrupt scheme to deprive the citizens of the state … by using the power and influence of his official position to obtain for himself millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks,’’ Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara said in the indictment.

Silver is accused of illegally pocketing a total of nearly $4 million in the alleged scheme — and may have to cough up his pension if he is found guilty in order to make restitution, Bhahara warned.

Yeah, this is one I’ve been watching, and not only because of pension issues.

In my own case, I think a lot would prevent this sort of problem, such as what Florida is considering:

State lawmakers, Cabinet members, judges, school board members, county commissioners, sheriffs and property appraisers may not be able to join the traditional state pension plan if they are newly elected after July 2016.

That proposal is far from a reality but it is a distinct possibility as the House moves forward on a study aimed at evaluating potential changes in the $160 billion Florida Retirement System. The move to eliminate the option for a traditional pension for elected officials in the FRS is one of the proposals under review by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

For a long time, I’ve been against elected officials (just in general) from voting on their own pay and benefits. This is not like a company’s executives determining their own pay. Companies can’t arbitrarily soak their customers.

There is a general problem with the officials not having a piece of the action, though: they won’t have much direct interest in making sure the pension is fully funded.

FWIW, in places like Illinois, there’s not much incentive for the politicians to fully fund the state pensions, because they are in a separate, deeply underfunded (but relatively small) plan. Just as UAW leaders have their own, separate pension from the rank-and-file, this sort of set up is not all that unusual.

So it might not be all that big a change in incentives to just yank the politicians out entirely.

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