Congressional criminals still can collect public pensions

Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is the latest member of Congress to fall from grace

Mar 3, 2013 @ 12:01 am

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I find it mind-boggling that members of Congress who are convicted of crimes while in office are collecting, or will be eligible to collect, their taxpayer-funded government pensions.

Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. is the latest example of a member of Congress who was unable to obey the very laws he helped pass. The Illinois Democrat a few weeks ago pleaded guilty to one felony count in connection with using campaign contributions to buy $750,000 worth of luxury items and memorabilia.

During his plea agreement hearing, Mr. Jackson said: “For years, I lived off my campaign. I used money I shouldn't have used for personal purposes.”

Mr. Jackson added that he had “misled the American people.”

And yet Mr. Jackson, who will be sentenced June 28, technically is eligible to collect his estimated $45,000 annual pension when he turns 62 in 2028.

I say “technically” because there is a slight twist to this specific case.

In a published report, Kenneth Gross, a Washington attorney who specializes in campaign law compliance, said that because Mr. Jackson pleaded guilty, his pension may be in jeopardy because of a law that strips pensions for lawmakers convicted of an array of public- corruption crimes.

Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, agrees with Mr. Gross' assessment of the case involving Mr. Jackson.

For years, the only crimes that could deprive a lawmaker of his or her pension were “high crimes,” largely involving treason or espionage, Mr. Sepp said.

“The Jackson case is an interesting one, raising questions about interpretation of law regarding deprivation of pension,” he said.

New laws were enacted in September 2007 and April 2012 that widened the list of offenses that could deprive a lawmaker of a pension, Mr. Sepp said.

The problem, however, is in the interpretation.

For example, former three-term Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., was indicted in 2008 on charges that included extortion, wire fraud and money laundering.

Although his case has yet to come to trial, even if he is convicted, he won't lose his forthcoming federal pension, as his crimes are alleged to have occurred before enactment of the 2007 pension law.

Meanwhile, about 20 former members of Congress who were convicted of crimes while in office are collecting, or stand to receive, an annual taxpayer-funded government pension, according to the NTU.

HALL OF SHAME

If you are enjoying your breakfast or lunch while reading this, you may want to stop eating.

Veteran Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., who was convicted and sentenced to prison in a bribery case, continues to collect a combined $64,000-a-year congressional and military pension.

Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., D-Ohio, was ousted from Congress after being convicted in 2002 of taking bribes, filing false tax returns and racketeering.

He was released from prison in 2009 and continues to receive his $40,000-a-year taxpayer-funded federal pension.

Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., convicted on federal charges of racketeering, soliciting bribes and money laundering, is serving 13 years in prison. He also continues to collect his $40,000-a-year taxpayer-funded federal pension.

In all, U.S. taxpayers shell out about $800,000 a year in pensions for convicted former congressmen, the NTU reports. Sure, that is small change in our multitrillion-dollar economy, but it is about more than the money.

These elected officials were convicted of violating the public's trust, and they should have no right to a retirement check that is being funded by the very people they betrayed.

It seems obvious, but Congress needs to find ways to further strengthen current laws by ending pensions for members of Congress convicted of crimes while in office.

American taxpayers should not foot the retirement bill for members of Congress who break the law and violate our trust.

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