State officials demand change after disgraced lawmaker regains annual $246K pension
Should lawmakers who admit to corruption keep their state pensions?
The State Employees' Retirement System board decided last week that, in at least one case, the answer is yes - a response that has sparked cries for change from several prominent Pennsylvania officials.
The outcry stems from the SERS board's 6-5 decision last week to reinstate the $246,000-per-year pension of former state Sen. Robert Mellow, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to federal fraud-related charges after prosecutors accused him of using his state-funded staff to work on political campaigns. Mellow, a 40-year politician who had become a high-ranking Democrat in the Pennsylvania Senate, was convicted and received a 16-month prison sentence.
SERS revoked Mellow's pension under a state law affecting employees and lawmakers who are convicted of or plead guilty to certain charges. Mellow's attorneys appealed the decision twice on the grounds that his specific crimes - conspiracy to commit mail fraud and defrauding the U.S. - were not on the list of convictions that trigger pension forfeiture.
The second appeal worked, leading to SERS's narrow decision last week. Several state officials say they want to prevent similar decisions from happening in the future.
“It boggles the mind that taxpayers are on the hook to pay pension benefits to any public employee who pleads guilty to or is convicted of a crime committed in the course of their public service," Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said in a statement Tuesday.
DePasquale is one of several officials who, even before SERS's Mellow decision, has long advocated for changes to the state's forfeiture laws. He outlined suggested changes in two audit reports his office released earlier this year of SERS and the Public School Employees' Retirement System.
Some lawmakers have responded to SERS's decision with calls to renew dormant pension forfeiture bills in the state general assembly. One such bill - Senate Bill 611 - would expand the list of forfeiture-triggering crimes to include all felonies. Bill sponsor John DiSanto (R-Dauphin) argues this change would prevent accused politicians from cheating the system by pleading guilty to non-forefeiture crimes.
A similar measure passed the House in May in a 190-1 vote. Lawmakers are unsure if the Senate bill will go up for a vote before the end of 2017.