In 2012, former Senator Robert Mellow was sentenced to 16 months in prison, three years parole, and ordered to pay nearly $150,000 in fines and restitution. Now he wants his $20,000 per month pension back.
Although one lawmaker having a pension of $240,000 per year is one of the causes of the pension system’s $74 billion unfunded liability, lets focus on Mellow’s legal argument. According to Pennsylvania state law, a state employee forfeits their pension if convicted of any one of twenty-three specific state crimes. (The full list of offenses can be found here.) The law also stipulates, "no public official…shall be entitled to receive any retirement or other benefit or payment of any kind except a return of the contribution paid into any pension fund without interest, if such public official or public employee is convicted or pleads guilty or no defense to any crime related to public office or public employment." (Emphasis added)
According to an article published by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mellow’s lawyers are arguing that since he was convicted of the federal charge of conspiracy and conspiracy is not one of the crimes listed, he should have his pension restored. According to the same Inquirer Article:
"A similar argument has worked before. In 1999, Commonwealth Court reversed the pension forfeiture of a corrections officer who pleaded guilty to a federal charge of making a false declaration before a grand jury, finding that SERS was wrong to conclude the crime was "substantially the same" as the Pennsylvania crime of perjury."
With this legal precedent in hand, Mellow’s lawyers would be negligent not to argue that he should have his pension restored. However, that doesn’t mean that they have a good case. As with most things legal, the devil is in the details. According to the press release from the FBI announcing Mellow’s sentencing:
"Mellow, in his capacity as a state senator and the Democratic Leader during 2006 through 2010, conspired with others to misuse the staff and resources of the Pennsylvania Senate for political fund-raising and campaign purposes.
"As part of the scheme, Mellow caused and knowingly permitted, through willful blindness, the submission to the chief clerk of the senate of false job classification and reclassification forms and memos for senate staff who performed political fundraising and campaign work while being compensated by the senate.
"Mellow conspired with others to misuse senate staff and resources to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for an organization known as the Friends of Bob Mellow and the Democratic State Senate Campaign Committee and to support political candidates and causes throughout Pennsylvania."(Emphasis added)
Based on the emphasized text, it sounds like Mellow clearly violated the clause in the forfeiture law highlighting crimes "related to public office." The state employee pension board will vote on whether or not to restore Mellow’s pension. Regardless of that decision, someone will be appealing it to the courts and judges will ultimately decide the fate of Mellow’s pension.
We will keep you posted as the process moves forward, but you should not expect a speedy resolution.