PITTSBURGH - You’ve heard the saying that crime doesn’t pay, but in some cases it just might.
Target 11 investigator Rick Earle uncovered former state lawmakers facing criminal charges who are cashing in on their tax-funded pensions -- while delaying their day in court.
Former state lawmaker Mike Veon of Beaver County collected more than $176,000 of his tax-funded pension until he was convicted of public corruption and forced to surrender the monthly payments.
“What's happening right now is people are getting rewarded for breaking the law. They are delaying their day of reckoning as long as possible,” said Eric Epstein of the Harrisburg government watchdog group, Rock the Capital.
State lawmakers, or for that matter any state employee, are allowed to retire and collect their pension until they are convicted of or plead guilty to certain crimes that call for pension forfeiture.
Target 11 examined the pension records of six former state lawmakers who ran into trouble with the law and discovered that they collected a combined total of nearly $900,000 before the State Employee Retirement System stopped the monthly payments.
Former State Rep. Stephen Stetler topped the list with $219,000.
“They've collected hundreds of thousands of dollars at the taxpayer dime and you can't get it back, "said Epstein.
Target 11 has learned the new state Auditor General would like to change the entire system. He believes lawmakers and any other state employee charged with a crime that calls for pension forfeiture should not be allowed to touch their pensions until their cases are adjudicated by the courts.
“Find a way to put it in a lock box while the case is going on. If it turns out they are found not guilty -- innocent -- then they can get the money back. But if they are found guilty -- in a sense the taxpayers were not funding them during the trial,” said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who spent six years as a state representative.
Target 11 discovered that taxpayers continue to fund former state senator Ray Musto, of Luzerne County. Musto, who maintains his innocence, was charged with taking bribes in 2010, and today nearly three years later, he still hasn’t gone to trial.
He continues to collect more than $10,000 in monthly pension payments from the state. So far he’s pulled in more than $275,000.
Political consultant Bill Green says lawmakers have earned that money and are entitled to it until the courts determine otherwise.
“We are innocent until proven guilty and indictments do not necessarily mean you are guilty. It means there is a suspicion of guilt. It doesn’t mean that you are guilty, so I fall on the side that these are earned. There is a penalty if the person is found guilty and is sentenced then he or she should lose their pension and they do, and some of them are sizeable. In spite of that, people raise their eyebrows, and that’s understandable because legislative pensions are rather generous. But let’s not forget that people can be upset about it but the fact is you’re still eligible for it by law,” said Green.
“The revenue situation right now is not what it was five or six years ago, and everybody understands that, and it makes it even more urgent that we look at issues like this to save money because we don’t want to take money away from the environment and education,” DePasquale said.