Time for Pa. to stop paying fat pensions to criminals

The state House has passed legislation expanding the pension forfeiture law, but further action is needed.

Robert Mellow
Former Democratic State Sen. Robert Mellow was jailed on federal corruption charges but still believes he deserves a $246,000 yearly pension.

Maybe you saw recent jaw-dropping reporting about former Democratic State Sen. Bob Mellow, who was jailed on federal corruption charges, seeking to have his $246,000-a-year pension restored.

First, nobody in public life should get a pension that large. President Obama’s pension isn’t that large.

Second, nobody in public life who betrays the public trust should get any taxpayer-funded pension at all. Crime, for public officials, should not pay.

And so it’s with some, though muted, enthusiasm that I note our usually tone-deaf legislature is taking steps to address the issue.

The Pennsylvania House last week, in a virtually unanimous bipartisan vote of 190-1 (I’ll get to the 1 later), approved a bill expanding the state’s pension forfeiture law.

The legislation says any public employee, including teachers, school administrators, elected officials, etc., loses pension benefits if he or she is convicted or pleads guilty or no contest to any felony in any way related to work.

Currently, pension forfeiture is linked only to a limited list of crimes such as theft, bribery, extortion and official oppression.

(One might argue, given the state of the state, a citizen class-action suit could be brought against the entire legislature on grounds of “official oppression.”)

The bill also requires courts to notify pension systems of felony convictions and pleas, which (unbelievably) is not now the case. It also says benefits are “immediately forfeited.” And it requires any restitution payments to victims come from cash the perp would have gotten.

“It’s a major step,” says its sponsor, State Rep. Scott Petri (R., Bucks). “It fills loopholes.”

If enacted, it would not prevent Mellow, a former Senate leader from the Scranton area, from getting his pension. But, as reported, the State Employees’ Retirement System board can do that. And it should.

Petri, however, says his bill prevents pension grabs in future Mellow-like cases.

So that’s good.

But my muted enthusiasm stems from the fact the House passed a bill like this last session and it died in the Senate.

And Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) last week told the online news service Capitolwire that while he thinks the Senate will take the issue “under consideration" -- there’s a Senate bill like Pertri’s awaiting action -- "…we want to be cautious and make sure we don’t run afoul of the Constitution.”

Corman offered an example of a public official in a fist fight in a bar found guilty of aggravated assault, a felony. He said, “I’m not sure that’s what we’re looking for [to qualify] for pension forfeiture.”

Ironically, the sole House “no” voter, Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware), who calls the bill “too broad,” offered a similar situation in explaining his opposition.

Vitali cites an example of a 30-year teacher getting into a fight in school with a new teacher. Both are found guilty of aggravated assault. Vitali says there’s a “fundamental unfairness” to the longtime teacher's losing a bundle and the new teacher's losing little, if anything.

I mention these as examples of legislative thinking. I’m pretty sure neither lawmaker is suggesting an inordinate number of public employees are prone to public brawling.

This isn’t difficult. Not only should this bill be enacted, it should kick-start a larger discussion.

Too many public pensions are too big. There ought to be caps.

The Harrisburg Patriot-News two years ago listed 10 state pensions in excess of a quarter-million dollars, including former Penn State President Rodney Erickson’s ($477,591) and former Philly Democratic Rep. Frank Oliver’s ($286,118).

Too many elected officials charged with crimes plea-bargain their way to keeping pensions, including former Philly Democratic Rep. Louise Bishop ($97,100).

Our out-of-control state pension liability issues present bigger, more complex problems. But changing the forfeiture law – pension reform everyone can understand – should happen pronto to restore at least some public trust in a too-long sorry system.