Months after conviction, Fattah collecting government pension

Chaka Fattah leaves federal courts after his son Chaka "Chip" Fattah Jr. was sentenced Tuesday February 2, 2016.

WASHINGTON - Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah was convicted of corruption charges in June, resigned from Congress two days later, and was replaced in November.

But he is still collecting two taxpayer-funded pensions, together worth about $60,000 a year.

The Philadelphia Democrat has begun receiving a federal pension estimated at around $55,000 a year - and he'll keep getting it while his appeals play out. He's also collecting a state pension, $405 a month, from his days as a legislator in Harrisburg, public records show.

The payments come as Fattah continues to fight his conviction on racketeering and bribery charges - and saw a minor measure of success when a judge in October overturned four of the 22 counts on which jurors convicted him.

Together, the pensions equal about a third of the $174,000 salary he received as a congressman.

Both retirement benefits could eventually be stripped. But not yet.

His federal payments can continue until his appeals are exhausted, federal officials said. Pennsylvania officials will review his state payments after his sentencing, scheduled for Dec. 12, according to a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement System.

It's unlikely Fattah would have to pay back the money he collects in the meantime.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management said Fattah is collecting his federal pension, but could not reveal exactly when that it began, or specify the amount.

But after more than 21 years in Congress, his pension is likely worth about $55,000 annually, according to an estimate by the National Taxpayers Union, a fiscal watchdog group.

The group blasted the federal ethics law that allows lawmakers to keep receiving pensions while appealing convictions, a process that could take years.

"To an average citizen, it's clear that these laws were either drafted very carefully or very cleverly, depending on their opinion of Congress," Pete Sepp, the group's president, said in an email.

If Fattah loses his pension, he would be the first federal lawmaker to suffer that consequence under a 2007 congressional ethics law, he said.

Contacted on Thursday, Fattah declined to comment on his pension. Instead he emailed a statement about a major health-care bill he supported that passed the House this week.

"This is the work I came to the Congress to do," he wrote.

The veteran Philadelphia politician was convicted of taking bribes from supporter Herbert Vederman in exchange for pushing the donor's name for an ambassadorship. He was also found guilty of misusing taxpayer grants for personal causes, such as paying off personal and political debts.

Those convictions could cost Fattah his retirement credit. But with his appeal options still open, the Personnel Management Office will wait until a final appeals ruling "before taking any action involving his benefits," a spokesman said.

In explaining why the law would delay a pension forfeiture, Stan Brand, a longtime Washington defense lawyer, said: "It's not final in the sense that he has appeal rights ... you would want to make sure that this is fully resolved before you take some administrative action."

It was unclear whether he could be required to return any pension money he collects. Several ethics experts said they were unsure. Brand and Sepp said Fattah would likely keep the money he collects during his appeals.

At the state level, the laws governing the state retirement system put pensions in danger only after sentencing.

"Long-standing case law has held that conviction occurs at the point of sentencing," wrote spokeswoman Pamela Hile.

Though Fattah was convicted of federal crimes, Pennsylvania law says he can also be stripped of his state pension if the charges mirror state violations that trigger a forfeiture, and if there is a connection with his state office.

Bribery is among the crimes that can cost state officials their pensions, but Fattah has not held state office since 1994, long before his crimes. He would not have to pay back any state pension funds he has already collected.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of ethics group Common Cause Pennsylvania, said lawmakers should stop getting their pensions at the time of conviction.

"Procedures certainly need to be changed," he said.

jtamari@phillynews.com

@JonathanTamari

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