By Dave Lemery | Watchdog.org
When public sector employees in Pennsylvania commit crimes related to their work, there are laws in place to ensure that they won’t collect their pension benefits after they serve their sentence.
The problem arises when there’s some dispute as to whether a given crime meets the criteria for the forfeiture of a pension. In the case of former Democratic state Sen. Bob Mellow, for instance, there was a notable outcry in 2017 when the board of the State Employees’ Retirement System determined that he could collect his $245,000 annual pension despite having pleaded guilty to multiple felonies related to his time in office.
Among those appalled by such outcomes is state Sen. John DiSanto, R-New Bloomfield. For the second session in a row, he has introduced legislation that would preclude a public employee in the state from collecting his or her pension if convicted of any felony.
As Senate Bill 113 was being considered Tuesday by the Senate Finance Committee, DiSanto noted that the previous version had been passed unanimously by the Senate and made it through the House Judiciary Committee before stalling in the House of Representatives.
“Since 2004, there have been 656 felony crimes committed that potentially would have lost some forfeiture if this law was in place,” DiSanto told his fellow committee members. “Many of those were sex crimes. So this is just closing a loophole.”
DiSanto’s bill also ensures that pension boards will be notified when a public employee is convicted, rather than relying on media reports or tips for the boards to find out.
State Sen. John Blake, D-Scranton, who coincidentally succeeded Mellow in the Senate seat representing the 22nd District, was effusive in his praise of DiSanto and committee Chairman Scott Hutchinson, R-Oil City, for bringing the bill forward.
“I want to commend Senator DiSanto on the legislation,” Blake said. “It’s necessary and important to get this done. We did go 50-to-0 off the senate floor, just didn’t get to the finish line in the House. So we should do that.”
In his memorandum introducing the 2017 version of the bill, DiSanto noted that officials charged with multiple crimes have sometimes chosen to plead guilty to those that would preserve their pension in exchange for having other charges dropped.
“[Former Coughlin High School] high school principal Frank Michaels did not lose his $5,000 a month pension by pleading guilty to a felony count of child endangerment, a non-forfeitable crime,” DiSanto wrote. “Michaels was also charged with two forfeitable crimes of perjury and false swearing for lying under oath during a 2015 trial resulting from a sex crime perpetrated by a teacher on a student. In exchange for Michaels’ guilty plea, these other counts were dismissed.”
SB113 was approved unanimously Tuesday by the Finance Committee to advance to the full Senate for consideration.