Forfeiting the public trust

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In 2007, Sens. John Kerry and Ken Salazar introduced the Congressional Integrity and Pension Forfeiture Act. It would have amended federal law to allow the forfeiture of benefits — including pensions — of members of Congress following conviction of any public corruption crime, such as perjury, forgery, bribery, tampering and obstruction.

Very quickly, the bill became known as the Duke Cunningham Act, so named after Navy veteran and former Congressman Duke Cunningham, who was convicted in 2006 of federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion. He was sentenced to more than eight years in prison and required to pay $1.8 million in restitution.

Cunningham got to keep his government pension, which was the impetus for the forfeiture bill.

It never passed.

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Several years before, after Congressman James Traficant was expelled from Congress following convictions of bribery, racketeering and filing false tax returns, a similar bill was proposed and failed.

Traficant served seven years in jail, and got to keep his federal pension.

And, last June, Sen. Mark Kirk submitted an updated version of the bill to expand forfeiture punishment — from Congress on down to the lowliest federal public servant. That bill was referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, where it remains today.

Thirteen states have laws that allow forfeiture of public pensions for public officials who commit felonies on the job, including Florida, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

State Rep. Leslie Fossel, R-Alna, has proposed such a law for Maine, which, if passed, could naturally become known as the Paul Violette Act.

Fossel’s bill is intended to preserve public trust, which, unfortunately, would come too late to apply to Violette.

Last week, the former executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority pleaded guilty to stealing from the MTA to pay for luxury vacations, spa treatments and upscale restaurants.

In April, he is expected to be sentenced to serve as many as five years in jail and will be required to pay $155,000 in restitution to Maine.

While in jail and afterward, Violette anticipates receiving monthly pension payments of $5,000.

According to Violette’s attorney, that money will be used to make restitution. So, he stole from Maine people and will use his public pension — a mix of his own money and tax dollars — to pay us back.

It’s maddening.

But is it fair to take the pensions of public employees who have done wrong?

Pennsylvania thinks so, and the preamble to its forfeiture law carries a strong statement about public trust and the need to penalize public officials who breach their “duty of faithful and honest public service.”

Pennsylvania’s law goes further than the proposal in Maine, and permits pension forfeiture for members of the state’s judiciary, even if no crime has been committed.

The proposal in Maine is worth serious consideration.

It does not mandate pension forfeiture in all felony cases, only for those felonies committed in connection with the employee’s work and only at the discretion of the courts. And, the forfeiture would be targeted so the pensioner could still receive what he or she paid in for their own retirement, forfeiting only the publicly paid portion and any interest accrued over the years.

So, a convicted felon wouldn’t be left destitute upon retirement, but would get no support from taxpayers after having cheated them.

In addition to Fossel’s bill, Augusta Sen. Roger Katz has proposed a bill that would require the study of other forfeiture provisions across the nation before any changes are made in Maine, and that makes sense. Not only could we see what other states have on the books, but we could find out how these laws are working and whether there is any deterrent effect under threat of forfeiture.

When Louisiana was considering enacting forfeiture legislation, the Federation of Teachers fought back. While acknowledging that no one favors rewarding employees for “dishonorable service,” Federation officials said there is no evidence that forfeiture deters crime, so any law that mandates such action is more poetic justice than financial justice.

While we don’t agree with much of the Federation’s argument against such a law, the group does make a good point about fairness.

The federal Employee Retirement Security Act offers private employees protection against pension forfeiture, while public retirement plans have no such protection.

There’s also the very real possibility that if Maine passes forfeiture measures and a public employee loses his or her full pension, that person may very well end up dependent on social services that are paid directly through tax dollars, rather than a managed retirement account.

Violette is a thief and a cheat. But, he may have done us a favor by providing needed incentive to find additional ways to protect future public funds from would-be felons.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in the column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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