Strip pensions for disgraced public servants

Perspectives

While calls to strengthen the state’s pension forfeiture act often follow the downfall of high-ranking elected officials, the list of former public servants who deserve to be stripped of taxpayer-funded retirement benefits is much more extensive.

As the Post-Gazette’s Matt McKinney reported, more than 200 former public school employees continue to receive publicly funded pensions despite criminal convictions or loss of professional certifications for various kinds of misconduct.

This is utterly outrageous.

The recipients include at least one former teacher who helped students cheat on a standardized test and former educators who committed sex crimes and murder.

The narrow wording of the state’s pension forfeiture law is to blame.

For example, in cases of sex crimes, the law requires public school employees to forfeit their pensions only when their offenses are committed against students and in the course of their employment.

Teachers convicted of preying on co-workers at school or a neighbor’s toddler in the local park or retired educators who commit offenses while volunteering on school grounds, face no loss of retirement benefits.

The latter scenario arose in the Jerry Sandusky case.

In 2015, Commonwealth Court ruled that the former Penn State football defensive coordinator could keep his pension because he’d already retired — though still collaborating with the school on a children’s charity — when he committed the child sex offenses that ultimately landed him a decades-long prison term.

Disgraced public servants should be able to retain whatever they contributed to their retirement accounts, but they should surely lose the taxpayer-funded portion in a more robust range of circumstances than is currently the case.

Public school employees and retirees should lose publicly funded retirement benefits for any misconduct that results in loss of professional certification; any criminal offense committed on school grounds; or any crime of violence or moral turpitude, regardless of where the illegal activity takes place.

“Public school employees must be held to high standards of behavior because they are entrusted with the safety of our students,” state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale noted in an audit of the Public School Employees’ Retirement System last year. “These school employees are expected to conduct themselves with ethical and moral integrity, as well as engage in lawful conduct at all times.”

High-profile cases, including Sandusky’s and former state Sen. Bob Mellow’s successful fight to keep his pension despite a federal corruption plea, just arouse the public’s anger about wayward officials who violate the public trust, yet collect pensions more generous than the average Pennsylvanian’s.

But big cases obscure the scope of the problem.

Most of those benefiting from the lax forfeiture law aren’t at the top but in the middle and lower levels of state government and the public schools.

DePasquale is beating the drum for reform, and various bills for cracking down are awaiting action in the Legislature.

There’s no better way to signal zero tolerance for misconduct than to hit offenders in the pocketbook.

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