- Associated Press - Sunday, December 14, 2014

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Nearly 200 former public employees in Pennsylvania have had their pensions seized for job-related misconduct over the past decade, from teachers who engaged in sexual acts with students to judges in the kids-for-cash scandal, lawmakers involved in using their staff to campaign and three members of a powerful Pittsburgh-based political family.

Records obtained last week by The Associated Press under the Right-to-Know Law indicate 104 people in the State Employees’ Retirement System have seen their public pensions forfeited since the start of 2005. About a third involved theft - other major categories were bribery, fraud, extortion, forgery and tampering with records.

The Public School Employees’ Retirement System reported 77 pension seizures over that same period, about half of them triggered by a 2004 law that added sexual offenses involving students to the list of forfeiture-triggering crimes. Between them, the two systems have about 700,000 active workers, retirees and beneficiaries.

The forfeiture law, enacted amid a string of state government scandals in the late 1970s, prevents situations where someone “crosses the line and still walks off with a healthy pension,” said David Thornburgh with the Philadelphia-based good-government advocacy group The Committee of Seventy.

“It’s raising the stakes, it’s saying if you get elected to office you have to uphold the public trust,” Thornburgh said. “The easiest way to avoid this, right, is not to get indicted and convicted.”

State Sen. LeAnna Washington resigned after being sentenced to probation in October on a guilty plea of criminal conflict of interest, in a deal that dropped a charge of theft of services, an offense that could have cost her her pension.

Among the SERS forfeitures, judges were the most common job category - 19 of them have lost their pensions in the past decade, including Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and Superior Court Judge Michael Joyce. Melvin’s sisters Janine Orie, who was her paid assistant, and Jane Orie, a former state senator, also lost their pensions - all three were convicted in a pair of prosecutions over using public resources for campaign purposes.

Magisterial district judges lost pensions after being caught fixing citations, unethical elections behavior and even child molestation. Prosecutors said one district judge traded favorable rulings for sexual favors, while judicial ethics officials said another routinely used vulgar language with women in his office and sometimes showed them images of naked women on his office computer.

Luzerne County Common Pleas Judge Ann Lokuta got her pension taken away after being removed from the bench for mistreating courthouse employees, failing to perform her duties and having government underlings run her personal errands. The major figures in the kids-for-cash juvenile justice scandal, former Luzerne judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella, lost theirs, too.

Over the past decade, the Pension Forfeiture Act has snared 15 members or employees of the state House, eight in the Senate, 14 at Corrections and eight at what is now the Department of Human Services. Among the 14 at the Department of Transportation are people who were caught selling fake licenses, changing computer records of suspended drivers and taking bribes.

State troopers and prison employees lost their retirement benefits after being charged with, among other things, sex with inmates, tipping off truck stop prostitutes, interfering in investigations and smuggling drugs for inmates.

Jerry Sandusky’s pension was taken when he was sentenced for child molestation in October 2012, a decision he is currently appealing on grounds that the triggering offenses, which he denies, predate the 2004 sex-crimes amendment. He earned his pension over decades at Penn State, where employees are not state workers but are allowed to sign up for SERS.

People who lose their pensions can usually withdraw their own paycheck contributions, which can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Four state lawmakers convicted in the recent set of public corruption cases - former Reps. John Perzel, Brett Feese, Mike Veon and Steve Stetler - cashed out more than $520,000 collectively.

Former Sen. Bob Mellow withdrew nearly $322,000 before losing his pension, and Conahan collected about $301,000.

For people who have spent long careers in government, the loss of a pension can be a crushing financial penalty.

Bill DeWeese, a former House Democratic leader and speaker who was released from state prison earlier this year, said in a recent phone interview that he figures his pension was worth more than $3 million. He said seizing the entire pension, rather than just what he earned during the period covered by his crimes, was not fair.

“After three years as a young Marine officer, and 36 at the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, the elimination of all of my medical, visual, dental and pension opportunities is much more devastating than the rigors and challenges of incarceration,” said DeWeese, 64.

As young legislators in 1978, he and Mellow both voted for the pension forfeiture law.

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