Pa. weighs restoring $20,000 monthly pension for convicted Senate leader

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State officials are weighing whether to restore the pension of former state Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow, who was convicted on federal corruption charges.

HARRISBURG — Nearly five years after a longtime leader of Pennsylvania's Senate went to prison on a federal corruption charge, state officials are weighing the unusual step of restoring his $20,000-a-month pension.

The 11 board members who oversee the State Employees’ Retirement System are in the process of voting on the long-fought appeal by Robert Mellow, the Scranton-area legislator who lost the retirement benefit when he pleaded guilty in May 2012.

It’s unclear how long their decision will take or if it will be made public; the SERS board's next public meeting is June 14. “The board will deliberate for as long as it needs to,” said its spokesman, Jay Pagni.

Mellow, now 74, could not be reached. A phone message left at a home listed for him in Lackawanna County was not returned. His lawyer did not responde to requests for comment. 

But if their appeal succeeds, he is likely to join an extremely small circle of Pennsylvania public servants to get their monthly payments restored. 

Pensions have long been one of the perks of public office, and losing them has been standard practice for state officials turned convicts. Other boldface names to lose them after convictions in recent years include former House Speakers Bill DeWeese and John Perzel, former Sens. Vincent J. Fumo and Jane Orie, and Orie’s sister, former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

Because Mellow’s conviction occurred in federal court, it gave him an argument many of the others didn’t have. He contended his crime wasn't comparable to any of the state crimes listed in the pension forfeiture law.

"Conspiracy is not included in the list of offenses that result in forfeiture," his attorneys argued in a filing with SERS. "The Pension Forfeiture Act ... cannot in any way be read to apply to conspiracy offenses."

A similar argument has worked before. In 1999, Commonwealth Court reversed the pension forfeiture of a corrections officer who pleaded guilty to a federal charge of making a false declaration before a grand jury, finding that SERS was wrong to conclude the crime was “substantially the same” as the Pennsylvania crime of perjury.

Mellow served 40 years in the Senate, rising to serve as president pro tempore in the early 1990s and for years as the Senate Democrats’ floor leader. Among the legislation to his credit was an early 1990s measure that lured thousands of public school teachers statewide to accept early retirement buyouts. 

His own pension was almost certainly more lucrative. After his decades of service, Mellow was entitled to $246,000 a year. Because he divorced in 2006, the monthly benefits were split: $11,579 for Mellow and $8,930 to his his ex-wife, Diane Mellow.

He once had been seen as a potential gubernatorial candidate. When Mellow in 2010 said he would not seek reelection, then-Gov. Ed Rendell praised him for contributing greatly "not only to his district but to the entire state." And Mellow himself pronounced that he was leaving public office "knowing that I have always strived to meet a high standard of excellence."

A few months later, federal agents raided his home and office. And early in 2012, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said he had used taxpayer-funded Senate staffers to raise money and work on political campaigns.

Mellow was sentenced to 16 months in prison. He was released from federal custody on March 14, 2014, prison records show.

His 72-year-old ex-wife also lives in Lackawanna County. Diane Mellow’s lawyer, Terrence McDonald, said she is eager for the matter to be resolved.

“It affects her deeply,” McDonald said. “At this point she’s struggling to keep her home.”

Although he first moved to appeal the pension forfeiture years ago, the request was put on hold because of the other legal proceedings involving Mellow, the SERS board spokesman said. It began reviewing the matter this year.

The board members are not publicly discussing the case. Three members contacted in recent days by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Inquirer and Daily News declined to comment. The remaining eight could not be reached or did not respond to messages.

The board includes sitting state representatives and senators as well as appointees of Gov. Wolf and former Gov. Tom Corbett. Members initially vote by ballot and return the votes to SERS staff -- the process now underway -- but any member could request further discussion, which could lead to a new vote, Pagni said.  Even after a decision is final, it can be appealed to the courts.

One person who successfully took that route was Jerry Sandusky. He had his own pension restored in late 2015.

Staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.