EDITORIALS

Pensions and felons

Posted Feb. 16, 2012, at 6:32 p.m.
Paul Violette
AP
Paul Violette

As much as Mainers were outraged that Paul Violette stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Maine Turnpike Authority, they were even more galled that he got to keep his state pension.

Earlier this month, Mr. Violette, who oversaw the turnpike authority for 23 years, pleaded guilty to taking tens of thousands of dollars from his employer. He bought gift cards to expensive hotels and restaurants and then used them himself. Because of the amount of money he took, some of the charges were felonies. He is likely to spend several years in jail.

During that time and after, he will continue to receive his pension, which totals $5,000 a month.

Under the plea agreement, which has yet to be approved by a judge, Mr. Violette has agreed to repay the state $155,000.

Maine is one of 11 states that does not have a public pension forfeiture law. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, and Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna, reasonably want to change that and have submitted bills to do that.

Sen. Katz wants to look at what other states are doing and then craft an appropriate Maine law. Rep. Fossel has submitted legislation that would allow judges to require that state employees who are convicted of felony crimes forfeit their pensions, minus their contributions. They could also be required to pay restitution.

“Violation of the public trust is a serious offense,” said Rep. Fossel in a statement announcing his bill Thursday.

Any future law changes would not apply to Mr. Violette.

Carefully tailoring a forfeiture law is important because employee pensions represent a commitment between the state and the worker. However, if that worker violates the public trust to such an extent that he is convicted of a felony crime, rescinding the state’s contribution seems warranted.

Most states have provisions that allow government employee pension benefits to be revoked if the recipient is convicted of a crime, according to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators. In some instances, the employee gets to keep the portion of the pension that he contributed.

Many are narrowly tailored to apply only when the employee has committed a felony related to his work duties. This makes sense.

Others only require forfeiture in embezzlement cases.

Others, such as Colorado and Indiana, have provisions to allow pension benefits to be used to reimburse the state for money that was taken from it. Massachusetts law requires disability benefits to be suspended if a public employee is jailed as the result of a felony conviction.

Sen. Katz and Rep. Fossel are right to want to review the differing state laws and model Maine legislation after the best.

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