In Pa., corruption can be helpful

Posted: July 29, 2014

LET'S TALK pension costs.

And let's talk using corruption - arguably our most common public-sector commodity - to bring them down.

I'm semi-serious.

An overlooked benefit to paying taxes for public pensions in one of the nation's most corrupt states is that wrongdoing saves us money.

Think about it.

Many forfeit pensions after convicted of crimes under Pennsylvania Act 140 of 1978.

Through a Right-to-Know request, I got numbers on some of our more high-profile perps in order to show the sorts of savings available.

Remember, this is just a taste from the buffet of bad behavior, a sliver from a large pie of potential.

For instance, just five fairly recent legislators whose evil ways put them away save us more than $440,000 every year.

Since everyone talks in decades when discussing pension costs, that's $8.8 million over 20 years. And that's just five guys!

Who are they and what would they have gotten?

Former Democratic House whip Mike Veon, 57, of Beaver County, went to prison in 2010 convicted of using tax dollars to give state employees bonuses for campaign work.

If collecting a pension, he'd get $50,340 a year.

Former Republican House whip Brett Feese, 60, who also was a Lycoming County district attorney, was convicted in 2011 in a scam dubbed Computergate, involving the use of state computers and employees for campaign work.

If collecting a pension, he'd get $65,070 a year.

Philly's own former GOP House Speaker John Perzel, 64, was sentenced to prison in 2012 after pleading guilty in Computergate.

If he were collecting a pension, he'd get $85,653 a year.

Philly's own former, powerful Democratic state Sen. Vince Fumo, 71, was sentenced to prison in 2009, convicted on 137 federal corruption charges.

If collecting a pension, he'd get $100,486 a year.

And former Democratic Senate Leader Bob Mellow, 70, was sentenced to federal prison in 2012 after pleading guilty to false tax returns and using Senate employees for campaign work. He still faces state charges related to a turnpike bid-rigging scam.

If he were collecting a pension, he'd get $138,958 a year.

If a few of these numbers seem high, just remember that the average pension for state workers and teachers is about $25,000 a year. But the largest full-time legislature in America gives itself more generous benefits.

Take former Philly Democratic Rep. Frank Oliver, now 92, never convicted of anything. He retired in 2010. His pension is $286,118. That's more than triple legislative base salaries.

You'd think that such largesse might encourage lawmakers to stay clean, no?

Or encourage taxpayers to push harder for term limits, eh?

Yeah, neither of those things is happening.

So what should happen is aggressive prosecution to bring down pension costs.

There are at least five Philly lawmakers - state Sen. LeAnna Washington and state Reps. Louise Bishop, Vanessa Brown, Michelle Brownlee and Ron Waters - currently in hot water for various alleged offenses.

Between them there's about 70 years of service and, because of their circumstance, big potential pension savings.

Plus, there are nearly 380,000 active members in pension programs under the State Employees' Retirement System (106,152) and the Public School Employees' Retirement System (273,504).

What are the odds each and every one always acts within the bounds of the law?

This is a state considering a new license plate slogan: The Commonwealth Where Corruption is Common.

(Disclaimer: I made that up. It's not true. But it should be.)

Come on, local, state and federal prosecutors; do your state a service. Help cure pension woes, save tax dollars.

You've got time. Elected officials/candidates use the issue only as a political football and fundraiser.

So get out there. Investigate. Prosecute for pensions.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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