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Commit a crime, collect a pension

Public employees — including teachers — receive retirement benefits even if they are felons.

February 12, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Bell's former city administrator, Robert Rizzo, is shown in court with former Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia. Bell officials say Rizzo could have used disability pensions and workers' compensation awards to reward allies or to hush up opponents.
Bell's former city administrator, Robert Rizzo, is shown in court… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

From Sacramento — Here's another outrage about the child abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary School: If the teacher accused of spoon-feeding his semen to blindfolded students is convicted and sent to prison, he'll still receive a public pension.

Mark Berndt, charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct against children, is due nearly $4,000 a month. No matter the jury verdict. It's the law.

Same deal for a fellow Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, who was charged last week with three counts of lewd conduct alleging that he fondled a girl in his class.

In fact, any state or local government employee in California who commits a felony — theft, embezzlement, extortion, bribery — in the course of performing a public duty is still entitled to a pension.

"Even if he's in prison," says Brad Pacheco, spokesman for the California Public Employees' Retirement System.

"Teachers retain their pension benefits regardless of the reason for their separation from employment," says Krista Noonan, communications director for the California State Teachers' Retirement System. "It's like a property right. It cannot be taken away or reduced."

There are a couple of relatively minor exceptions.

If some government mucky-muck is found to have illegally padded his pay and piled up an improper pension, it can be reduced.

For example, CalPERS slashed the pension of former Bell City Administrator Robert Rizzo to $50,000. He had expected to haul in $650,000 a year from CalPERS. Rizzo is accused of looting Bell by, among other ways, drawing a huge salary never approved by the City Council.

Rizzo, his assistant and six council members face trial on various charges of corruption.

If convicted, Rizzo shouldn't even be paid $50,000, in my view. But that gets into a big legal argument about constitutional protections.

Another minor exception to the taxpayers' commit-a-crime, draw-a-pension generosity is for elected officials. If they're caught at corruption, they can lose pension rights. But it's a weak law. The local governing body — a board of supervisors, for example — can reinstate the convicted politician's benefits.

Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to change all this.

Paying pensions to criminals "brings into disrespect and disrepute the whole civil service system," the governor told me.

The Bell scandal got him riled up, aides say.

One piece of Brown's proposed 12-point pension reform would strip retirement benefits from any public employee who committed a felony in the course of public duty.

The employee wouldn't be denied all pension pay — just the amount "earned" after he began the criminal activity. He would still be entitled to what he was previously vested in while clean.

It's unclear whether Brown's proposal would affect the alleged Miramonte molesters or pertain only to future crimes. Probably the latter. Maybe it also would affect just future employees. The governor's advisors expect that these questions would be settled in a court fight.

State and local government employees enjoy special protections under the "contracts clause" of the U.S. Constitution. But what about the contract signed by a teacher with a school district? Doesn't it forbid moral turpitude? If not, it should. And contract violations involving felonious moral turpitude should void pensions.

If nothing else, it should be on the table during collective bargaining. I can't believe teachers' unions would want to protect child molesters.

Brown's goal is to deny as much pension pay as possible to lawbreakers.

A Republican assemblyman, Cameron Smyth of Santa Clarita, would go one step further. He'd amend a pension forfeiture into the state Constitution. Then only the electorate at the ballot box could change the law.

Brown's proposal would merely be a statute, which could be altered by the Legislature on a majority vote.

"I want to make sure there's teeth in this," Smyth says. "I've been in the Legislature only five years, but that's long enough to have seen deals made in one year be undone in a future year.

"This is an era of term limits when legislators are not here for long and they don't have institutional memories. It's easy to forget the importance of some bills."

The importance of this legislation: "Teachers who are predators and basically use their positions to commit heinous acts on kids shouldn't be rewarded with pensions. In fact, taxpayers are hit twice — for the pensions and the cost of incarceration."

Smyth quickly adds: "In no way is this an anti-teacher proposal. My parents were teachers. My wife is a teacher. Her sister is a teacher. I want to protect our kids and the taxpayers."

Most probably, Smyth will get to vote only for Brown's proposal. His own will never reach the Assembly floor because it's a Republican measure in a Democratic-controlled Legislature. Moreover, his constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds legislative vote to advance to the ballot. That's very unlikely.

Brown's proposal should be a no-brainer for the Legislature. But there are rumblings of concern about the poor innocent spouse who might be relying on a full pension.

The public servant, however, should have thought about that before going bad. The spouse is his responsibility, not the taxpayers'. Anyway, there's SSI/SSP, the tattered federal-state safety net. Join the ranks of the unlucky.

"It's unfortunate," says Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). "Innocent people get hurt. On the other hand, this falls into the category of excess."

Steinberg says of Brown's anti-felon proposal: "I have no problem with it."

Good. Get it passed. Sooner the better — before many more crimes are committed on the public dime by creeps as they fatten their pensions.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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