New Castle News

March 19, 2013

Pension legislation tabled for scrutiny

John Finnerty
CNHI

CNHI — A bill that would enable the state to boot government employees out of the pension system easier has been tabled.

The measure is aimed at those who are convicted of crimes. Action on the bill is being delayed because lawmakers are in no hurry to publicly argue about what crimes are serious enough to justify losing an important employee benefit, the author of the reform bill said.

Pennsylvania government employees only lose their pensions if they use their government jobs to break the law or commit a number of specific offenses, chiefly those related to theft and fraud.

 Sex offenses only result in a loss of pension if the employee is a school employee who has victimized a student.

The state pension system argued that Jerry Sandusky was a “de facto” school employee when he targeted young people he had met through the Second Mile charity he founded while serving as an assistant football coach at Penn State University.

 Sandusky has appealed the pension system’s determination that he should forfeit his $59,000 a year salary.

The proposed legislation, authored by Rep. Fred Keller of Union County would add to the law a list of “crimes of violence” that would allow a government employee to be booted from the pension system. The bill would also call for pension forfeiture after any felony conviction.

Keller said that he was told that the legislation is being tabled because of concern that some of the offenses described in the bill are classified as misdemeanors, which, in the judicial system, are not considered as serious as felonies.

Keller’s bill adds homicide, aggravated assault, rape, incest, sexual abuse of children, arson, kidnapping, robbery and burglary to the list.

In addition to the crimes of violence, the bill also would add theft and all the prohibitions included in the Pennsylvania Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, which includes such offenses as conflicts of interest and accepting improper gifts.

“It’s broad, but I made it broad for a reason. The public shouldn’t have to pay for the pensions of people who violated the public trust,” Keller said.

A first-degree misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail and a maximum fine of $10,000. A third-degree felony, the lowest grade of felony, carries a maximum jail sentence of seven years and a top fine of $15,000.

Keller authored the legislation after learning about a case in which a former state police trooper was arrested on charges that he had exposed himself on a web cam while chatting with someone he thought was a young girl.

In that case, Douglas Sversko, 45, was approved for a $34,812 a year pension, due to his 18 years of service in the state police.

He pleaded guilty to unlawful contact with a minor and illegal use of a computer and was sentenced to five years probation. Both those crimes are felonies, Keller noted.

Under Pennsylvania’s pension forfeiture rules, even if an employee is kicked out of the system, he or she gets to keep the money the employee paid into the pension. The employee only forfeits the employer contribution, that is, the amount provided by tax dollars.

“It’s a shame we even have to have this discussion, Keller said.