Legislation would broaden crimes for which public officials forfeit state pensions
HARRISBURG — Legislation to prevent public officials convicted of crimes such as conflict of interest from collecting state pensions appears headed for consideration by the House Judiciary Committee, the bill’s sponsor said Friday.
The bill by Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks County, would expand the definition of crimes that require automatic pension forfeiture for elected officials and public employees under a law last amended about three decades ago, he said.
Petri, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, has several versions of the bill but said one likely to move forward adds felonies related to one’s office or public position. They would be added to the crimes covered, he said.
“Pennsylvania’s public corruption laws are ineffective and shortsighted,” said Laurel Brandstetter, former senior deputy attorney general. “The loopholes in Pennsylvania’s Pension Forfeiture Act are wider than the Fort Pitt Tunnel.”
Brandstetter reviewed the bills and prefers Petri’s bill that would prohibit collecting a pension upon conviction of “any crime related to his or her public employment.”
Limiting the additions to felonies “would miss a whole lot of misdemeanor thefts committed while in office,” she said.
Two state officials recently pleaded guilty to conflict of interest and kept their pensions.
Former Sen. LeAnna Washington, D-Philadelphia, pleaded guilty in October to conflict of interest. The Attorney General’s Office dropped a theft charge in a plea deal. Washington, 69, collects a $42,879 pension, records show.
She was accused of forcing her state-paid staff to work on her annual campaign fundraiser, held on her birthday.
Former turnpike CEO Joe Brimmeier, 66, of Ross was charged in a bid-rigging and influence-peddling scheme. He pleaded guilty to conflict of interest in November and kept his $43,027 annual pension, according to records.
Crimes that cause automatic revocation of pensions under the current law include theft by deception, theft by extortion, theft of services, forgery, bribery, tampering with records, false swearing and official oppression.
“Without question, the act should be amended to include the offense of conflict of interest, which is conduct prohibited by Pennsylvania’s Ethics Act,” said Brandstetter, chair of the internal investigations and white-collar practice group for the Leech Tishman Fuscaldo & Lampl law firm in Pittsburgh.
Eric Epstein, co-founder of Rock the Capital, a reform group, has tracked public officials’ pensions since 2005, when lawmakers approved and then repealed a pay raise for themselves.
“We need to tie a rope around the wallet of public employees and officials who enter a guilty plea or who are convicted for violating the (Pension Forfeiture) Act,” Epstein said.
Petri said he is unaware of any opposition to his legislation.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or [email protected].