It’s outrageous that former state senator Robert Mellow, a convicted felon, is trying to have his pension restored. But even more appalling is that the pension amounts to $240,000 a year for life. That obscene figure screams for reform of the state pension system — even if it means some state legislators’ luxurious retirement plans would take a hit.
Mellow, 74, once one of the most powerful Democrats in Harrisburg, would have to share the lucrative pension benefit with his ex-wife, who is in line to receive almost half of his $20,000-a-month payment. But for that to happen the State Employees Retirement System board would have to accept Mellow’s specious argument for regaining his pension.
He contends he pleaded guilty in 2012 to a federal conspiracy charge that is not included in the state Pension Forfeiture Act’s list of crimes. Regardless of Mellow’s attempt to slither through a loophole, the intent of the 1978 state law is to strip pension benefits from state employees convicted of egregious crimes.
Mellow’s crimes meet that description. He pleaded guilty to mail fraud and defrauding the United States. Prosecutors said he used taxpayer-funded Senate staffers to raise money and work on political campaigns. Sentenced to 16 months in prison, he was released from federal custody in March 2014.
Having served his time, Mellow wants to be rewarded with a hefty pension. Instead, step one: The pension board should deny Mellow’s request. Step two: The legislature should amend the forfeiture law to make it crystal clear that any elected official or other state employee convicted of corruption won’t get a pension. Step three: The legislature should fix the ailing pension fund.
Two years ago, Gov. Wolf vetoed a Republican pension bill that moved all new state and public school employees into a 401(k)-style plan. Wolf said the bill “provides no immediate cost savings to taxpayers and does not maximize long-term savings for taxpayers.” But his veto didn’t solve the problem. The state’s public-sector pension liability is $74 billion and growing by $172 a second. About half of every new dollar in education spending pays for pension benefits.
The pension shortfall is due to several factors, including people living longer and investment losses during the recession. But Mellow, when he was a powerful senator, also played a role in 2001 when the legislature changed the pension calculation formula to give all state and school district employees a 25 percent boost. Legislators also hiked their own generous pensions by 50 percent.
That move sounds like something Mellow would push. He spent much of his 40-year career in public office finding ways to enrich himself and reward friends. Mellow was one of the Senate leaders behind the clandestine vote to give legislators a pay raise in 2005. It was repealed four months later after a ferocious public backlash, but Mellow refused to refund the money he had taken, telling a constituent who complained to “get a life.”
Mellow also charged taxpayers $200,000 over seven years to rent space for his district office in a building initially co-owned by his wife and later by himself. It is time for Mellow to get a life not supported by taxpayers.