The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 15, 2013

Panel OKs bill expanding crimes that could mean loss of pensions

HARRISBURG — A bill aimed at making it easier for the state to boot government employees out of the pension system if they are convicted of crimes has been tabled 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 Thursday.

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

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

Keller said that he was told that the legislation was being tabled because there is 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. 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 offenses such 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 webcam 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 earned from 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 of 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 that is provided by tax dollars.

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

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