Five convicted state officials who left office after pleading guilty to various crimes are cumulatively collecting nearly $100,000 a year in pensions paid by state taxpayers. That total could rise in the next few years, when former Gov. John G. Rowland and former state Sen. Ernest Newton, who is now in prison, become eligible by turning 55.
This is exactly the scenario that some legislators are trying to thwart by calling for legislation to retroactively revoke pensions that are being paid to convicted officials. But therein lies the rub: Is revocation fair - is it right to change the rules of the game after it's started? And if revocation is fair, how serious must the crime be to lose your pension?
Rowland aides Peter Ellef and Lawrence Alibozek, former Rep. Jefferson B. Davis, and former Sen. Louis C. DeLuca have continued to receive their pensions after being convicted of crimes. And one of the state's largest pensions goes to Richard Straub, a longtime state employee who is serving a prison term after sexually assaulting 15 young men whom he supervised as a probation officer.
Ever since Alibozek pleaded guilty in March 2003, five years ago this week, in the corruption scandal that led to Rowland's resignation, lawmakers have repeatedly grappled with pension revocation.
But a line-up of the biggest hitters at the state Capitol say this is the year revocation will happen, because it is supported by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, the Senate Democratic leadership, Senate Republican leader John McKinney and the leaders of the committee that oversees ethics.
A vote on the issue is expected by next Wednesday's committee deadline for the government administration and elections committee, but the final votes by the full House of Representatives and Senate are not expected until near the end of the legislative session on May 7.
A FEAR OF BOOMERANGS
While officials offer multiple reasons for the constant delays in passing a revocation measure, Rep. William R. Dyson - with more than 30 years at the Capitol, the state's longest-serving legislator - said two major reasons are that legislators are reluctant to punish their former colleagues and they also fear that any sanction could one day boomerang.
"It's a Pandora's box," the New Haven Democrat said recently as he looked around the crowded House chamber. "Everyone in here runs the real risk of exposing themselves to that, and I think they think about that. I didn't think Rowland's pension should be taken, and I voiced it in caucus. Retroactivity? No. That's so patently unfair. I'm not supportive of retroactivity."
With decades of experience, Dyson is willing to say things that younger lawmakers will not. A key problem is that legislators have had a difficult time trying to decide which pensions to revoke and whether those who have committed misdemeanors could be considered along with convicted felons.
Rowland, for example, pleaded guilty to one felony count in a corruption scandal that forced him from office, while DeLuca, the former Senate Republican leader, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for conspiring with a Danbury trash hauler to threaten his grandson-in-law. Lawmakers have been unable to agree where to draw the line.
"The question is: How much flesh are we looking for?" Dyson asked. "How many pounds are going to satisfy those who hunger for someone's flesh? Would that apply to Lou DeLuca? That stuff is so gray."
The latest version of the legislation from the committee calls for a retroactive penalty dating back 10 years, meaning that it would reach Rowland and all others in the most recent scandals. That time frame, though, would not reach Straub, who retired before he was arrested in 1996. Although some say that ex post facto laws would prevent changing the penalties after the fact, Blumenthal says it would be defensible in court.
"I've always maintained that it would be upheld on a constitutional challenge, depending on the facts of the case," Blumenthal said. "The law, overall, would be upheld."
The potential law, Blumenthal said, should apply only to a felony crime that is directly related to the person's official duties. In each case the law was applied, a Superior Court judge would hold a separate hearing to consider the nature of the offense, and the circumstances would be reviewed case by case.
"Many legislators have believed that a minor, technical violation could cost them their pension," Blumenthal said. "Their fears have been exaggerated. ... Sometimes, it takes a few years for all these misunderstandings to be dispelled."
Saying he wanted to be blunt about the bill's failure over the past four years, Blumenthal admitted some lawmakers are reluctant to revoke their former colleagues' pensions because of personal relationships.
"There is bipartisan sympathy for individual legislators," Blumenthal said, declining to name any lawmakers. "This issue is bigger than any single individual."
Despite past delays, Blumenthal says this is the year to move forward and simply pass the bill. Blumenthal, a Democrat, has been pushing earnestly for the measure, which has been rejected each time by the Democratic-controlled legislature.
"Ethics reform seems to be the subject du jour," Blumenthal said. "We need to go beyond lip service and rhetoric. ... There is no question that the past failures are bipartisan and shared."
Rell supports revocation, but she understands why reaching a compromise has been difficult.
"How far back do you go and for what convictions?" Rell asked. "It's not just for the former governor. It's not just Newton. ... Where do you draw the line?"
Besides having a pension coming to them, the officials in question are entitled to state-paid health benefits as retirees, which are far more lucrative than many similar benefits in the private sector. There has never been a suggestion of revoking those benefits. Ellef, Alibozek and Davis are all receiving health benefits, while Newton and Rowland will receive them when they reach 55, according to State Comptroller Nancy Wyman's office.
STATE UNIONS CONCERNED
Another major problem for pension revocation has been that powerful state-employee unions, which hold considerable influence with their allies in the Democratic-controlled legislature, have feared that the bill could be written too broadly and could apply to some union members.
Sal Luciano, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 4, said revoking a pension is the same as taking away a property right. He is also concerned that removing a pension would place an unnecessarily severe economic penalty on an entire family, including children, for the misdeeds of one person.
"Simply fine the people and put a lien on their pension," Luciano said. "If somebody from the [United Auto Workers] steals a car, you can't take away their pension because it's a property right. When you do a crime, they don't come after your spouse."
In an attempt to break the logjam over the issue, Blumenthal negotiated a compromise with the unions that would make a distinction between state employees and public officials. While the entire pension of a public official could be revoked, a civil-service state employee could be sued for the costs of incarceration, fined or forced to pay restitution.
State law provides a separate definition of public officials, including legislators, constitutional officers such as Blumenthal and top-ranking managers in the state government.
Blumenthal's office filed a lawsuit against Straub, the longtime state employee who pleaded no contest to charges of sexually assaulting young men when he was a Danielson probation officer. Since there was no state law to revoke his pension, Blumenthal sued Straub for the costs of his imprisonment, and the state won about $200,000 in a settlement - about four years worth of pension benefits.
Straub's pension, which is nearly $4,100 per month, was not removed because he retired before his arrest in November 1996 on more than 220 charges related to the sexual attacks.
POLITICS AND PENSIONS
Partisanship has played a role in the revocation battle. When Democrats tried to revoke the pensions of Republicans like Alibozek and Rowland in the past, Republicans consistently countered with plans to offer an amendment that would apply to Davis, the former Democratic representative. Davis was a state-licensed foster parent who pleaded guilty after admitting to committing a sex act involving his foster son. The boy, who had lived with Davis and his former wife in Pomfret, told investigators that he had been assaulted by Davis between 50 and 100 times.
Nationally, 13 states have provisions to reduce or revoke pensions for corrupt elected officials and their top appointees, said Adam Joseph, a spokesman for Bysiewicz. Those are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee.
There is no reason, Blumenthal said, Connecticut cannot join them.
"We have no excuse - none - for permitting corrupt public officials to betray our trust and pick our pockets," Blumenthal said, "and then receive their full pension at our expense after criminal convictions."
Contact Christopher Keating at email@example.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun