Why Pa. public employees can commit crimes and still collect pensions
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in The Caucus, a new watchdog publication by LNP Media Group that focuses on state government and politics. To subscribe to The Caucus, call 717-291-8888 or visit caucuspa.com.
HARRISBURG — Kevin J. Foley, a Pennsylvania State Police criminal investigator, stabbed a dentist to death.
Gregory L. Eldred, who taught music at a public school, shot his ex-wife in a Coudersport church while she played the organ during services.
Douglas N. Sversko, a state police trooper, danced naked in front of a webcam and transmitted the images to an agent of the attorney general’s child-predator unit posing as a 13-year-old girl.
Foley, Eldred and Sversko each were convicted and sentenced for their crimes.
But that’s not the only thing they have in common.
The former state troopers and ex-teacher are still collecting tens of thousands of dollars every year from the state’s troubled pension plans.
An analysis of court records and data obtained from the pension systems found numerous instances of state employees collecting pensions after being convicted of violent crimes and certain sex crimes not enumerated under the law.
The findings reveal weaknesses in the Pension Forfeiture Act of 1978 — which requires state employees to give up their retirement benefits upon conviction of certain crimes — at a time when the state’s two largest pension plans face $60 billion in unfunded liability.
Republican state Rep. Scott Petri is renewing an effort in the new session to expand the forfeiture law to all felonies related to the duties of one’s public office.
“The public just screams bloody murder” when they see convicted felons collecting pensions, said Petri, of Bucks County. A loophole in procedure does not require mandatory reporting, he said.
“The ultimate question is how many people commit crimes that would trigger forfeiture that the agencies don’t know about?”
His legislation includes a mandatory reporting law.
Flaw in the law: Officials for the state’s largest pension plans — the State Employees’ Retirement System and Public School Employees’ Retirement System — say the agencies can revoke pensions only for officials whose crimes, no matter how heinous, are specified in the law.
The law, passed under the administration of the late Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp during a period remarkable for its high volume of corruption, focuses primarily on crimes such as theft, bribery, perjury, obstruction of justice and official oppression.
The retirement systems issued pension forfeiture letters to 222 state and school district officials and nine members of the judiciary since 2005, agency records show.
The monetary totals for those forfeitures are not a record the agencies track. Both systems denied Right-to-Know Law requests for the total monetary amount of forfeitures.
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The crimes enumerated in the Pension Forfeiture Act include 20 corruption-related offenses and 12 sex crimes against children added by the Legislature in 2004 for school officials.
The crime must be related to the person’s position. Such cases would include a state official who takes payoffs or a teacher who molests one of his students.
State employees and teachers convicted of crimes outside the scope of the law get to keep their pensions.
“As an administrative agency, our job is to enforce the statute as it is currently embodied,” said Jay Pagni, communications director for SERS.
Glen Grell, executive director of PSERS, said he understands public frustration with the law.
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“These are sometimes very serious crimes, but PSERS has no discretion. PSERS must apply the law as it is written,” he said.
“Over the years, PSERS has had many conversations with members of the General Assembly on proposals to expand the scope of the Pension Forfeiture Act,” said Grell, a former Republican House member from Cumberland County. “PSERS tracks the various (legislative) proposals, but ultimately, it is their policy decision.”
Crimes go unreported: Petri’s legislation is aimed at fixing what he calls “a procedural loophole” in law that does not require the employee, the courts or state agencies to send copies of court records upon conviction to state pension boards.
Petri’s proposal would require the courts to report felonies related to an official’s job.
PSERS often learns of criminal cases through websites for agencies such as the Department of Education, which publicizes the decertification of teachers, or by combing through newspaper articles, officials said.
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For SERS, some of the criminal cases ripe for forfeiture are difficult to miss. Many are high-profile crimes involving corrupt lawmakers and judges that generate statewide publicity.
Recent examples include former legislative leaders of both parties convicted in schemes to use millions in taxpayer money and resources for political campaigns.
Former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, a Republican from Allegheny County who was convicted of using staff to work on her campaigns, lost her pension. So did her sister, former Republican Sen. Jane Orie, who was convicted on similar charges but also was found guilty of introducing forged documents at her 2011 trial.
Former House Speaker H. William DeWeese, a Greene County Democrat, was convicted of using state resources for his campaigns and lost a pension he estimated would have been worth $3 million over his lifetime.
But the law is not strong enough if some offenders fall through the cracks, Petri said.
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House Majority Leader Dave Reed, an Indiana County Republican, said it’s “amazing” that a mandatory reporting requirement hasn’t been written into the law.
James Koval, a court system spokesman, said SERS requires government offices to notify it of criminal convictions or “other personnel action that might possibly implicate a forfeiture of pension under the act.” It does not apply to the courts, he said.
SERS said it issued the regulation in 1978, the same year the pension forfeiture act became law. But directing agencies to report employees’ crimes is not a law, and there’s no penalty for violating it.
“Who knows about it?” Petri said. “It’s a regulation, and it could change. The bureaucracy always wants to protect itself.”
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Eldred, 56, the music teacher who shot his wife to death in 2012, gets about $30,000 per year, according to data obtained under the Right-to-Know Law. And Foley, the ex-trooper who killed the dentist in 2006, receives about $11,000 annually.
Both are serving time in state prison.
The pension forfeiture law does not consider homicide related to a state employee’s or school official’s employment — something watchdogs call outrageous.
“Keeping state pensions with egregious felonies is obscene,” said Eric Epstein, co-founder of Rock the Capital, a reform group founded more than a decade ago.
Gary L. Weckerly, 65, a former Clarion shop teacher, is serving a 10- to 20-year sentence in state prison for child rape and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, according to court records.
Though many might believe his benefits should be revoked, he gets about $45,000 a year in state pension benefits, records show.
Court records show PSERS was aware of Weckerly’s conviction. In 2012, the pension system asked for a copy of the certified criminal complaint from Clarion County. PSERS requested information on Weckerly in other court dockets in 2013.
But a PSERS investigation found Weckerly’s crime was not related to his public employment, the agency said. So, he was not required to forfeit his pension.
The 2004 amendment adding sex crimes to forfeiture offenses has, however, snared the pensions of other school officials who abused kids. At least 68 of the 112 PSERS forfeitures since 2005 were sex-related, an agency spokeswoman said.
PSERS provided a list of more than 400 cases reviewed by the agency that did not rise to the level of forfeiture. Many of the sex-related cases were for corruption of minors, a crime not enumerated under the law.
Former Philadelphia Traffic Court Judge Thomasine Tynes, who admitted taking a $2,000 Tiffany bracelet from an undercover agent in a sting investigation, served two years in federal prison for perjury.
Her state pension of $51,180 would appear to be subject to forfeiture because perjury is among the offenses in the law, even though it was a federal charge.
But SERS officials said a 1999 Commonwealth Court case held otherwise.
Judges, however, don’t have to be convicted to lose their pensions. The Court of Judicial Discipline can order a revocation for a felony conviction or based on misconduct that holds the court in “disrepute.”
The standards are different for judges who are under the auspices of the Supreme Court. The Judicial Conduct Board has initiated formal proceedings against Tynes for misconduct, records show.
Tynes has been receiving a pension since July 2012. She is now in jeopardy of losing the money, officials said.
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Tynes and four Philadelphia lawmakers who were filmed accepting cash from an undercover agent posing as a lobbyist accepted plea deals from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. They included former state Reps. Ronald G. Waters, Harold James and Michelle F. Brownlee.
Their pleas to felony conflict-of-interest charges enabled them to escape more serious charges and keep their pensions. All had been charged with bribery, conspiracy, conflict of interest and failure to report the money on financial disclosure reports.
Former Rep. Louise E. Williams Bishop pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and preserved her $97,100 annual pension. Charges are pending against Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, a Philadelphia Democrat.
In a separate corruption case, former state Sen. LeAnna Washington, a Philadelphia Democrat, pleaded guilty to felony conflict of interest for ordering her Senate staff to organize her annual birthday fundraiser. Her pension is $42,800.
In a corruption case in which prosecutors alleged bid-rigging and influence-peddling, former Turnpike CEO Joseph G. Brimmeier took a plea bargain and accepted guilt for conflict of interest. He collects an annual pension of about $43,000. He stated later that he pleaded guilty to keep his pension.
Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor who teaches law at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, said prosecutors use the threat of pension revocation to get plea deals typically involving lesser crimes. But the tool has its critics.
“If you’ve been charged with bribery, you shouldn’t be given an opportunity to plead to a lesser crime to keep a pension,” said former state Rep. John Kennedy, who leads a business and taxpayer reform group, Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania.
“We’re $60 billion in the hole, and the clock keeps ticking,” he said.