HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – It is a maddening and all-too-familiar sight in recent years: elected officials apologizing for wrongdoing, pleading guilty to crimes, and preserving their taxpayer-funded pensions.
“That’s a huge loophole,” Sen. John DiSanto (R-Dauphin/Perry) said. “There are potentially numerous cases out there where pensions should have been forfeited but have not been.”
Currently, under Act 140 of 1978, there are about a dozen specific crimes that automatically trigger pension forfeiture. State employees can and do plead guilty to lesser crimes or different crimes and their pensions aren’t touched.
DiSanto’s Senate Bill 611 would change that and it passed unanimously out of committee last week. It would mandate pension forfeiture for any felony or crime that’s punishable by five years or more.
“I don’t think we should be pleading down when it’s matters of public trust,” DiSanto said. “If someone’s committed a crime, they should be held accountable. The taxpayers get off the hook and that could be a big number.”
DiSanto insists elected officials should be held to a higher standard, but his bill would also apply to state workers and school district employees; basically, anyone who’s in the state pension system. He was especially motivated by a former Penn State assistant football coach who’s behind bars but still collecting a nearly $5,000 a month payout.
“I think people were shocked that Jerry Sandusky walked away with a pension,” activist Eric Epstein of Rock the Capital said.
Former House Speaker John Perzel lost a big pension and went to jail in the fallout from Computergate. But after being charged and before being convicted, Perzel withdrew a lump sum of more than $200,000. Epstein would like to see that loophole closed as well.
“The most effective tool to deter political shenanigans is taking someone’s pension,” Epstein said. “And that doesn’t mean when they’re convicted and sentenced. What it means is when you’re presented, arraigned, or charged, that money goes in escrow. You don’t lose the money, but in the event you’re convicted, the taxpayers get the money back to pay for prosecution and pay for what you stole.”
Longtime Capitol observers smile at the concept. They’ve seen numerous measures pass out of committees in the House and Senate only to disappear. They never seem to pass both chambers and become law.