By Bradley Vasoli
Charges that former state Rep. Margo Davidson (D-Delaware County) stole from the commonwealth have cost the 10-year legislator her job and $6,925 in restitution so far. But whatever sentence she eventually receives, it probably won’t cost her her taxpayer-funded health and retirement benefits.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) announced last month that his office found Davidson abused the state’s system for reimbursing lawmakers’ travel and other job-related expenses and also that she asked a witness to lie to investigators. Shapiro, who noted that the ex-representative has admitted responsibility and resigned, charged her with second-degree misdemeanors and election code violations.
READ MORE — Rep. Davidson of Upper Darby resigns after charges of theft from state
The Attorney General’s decision not to charge Davidson with higher crimes is what promises to preserve her pension and medical coverage. Under certain conditions set forth in Pennsylvania’s Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act, also known as Act 140, state officials convicted of job-related offenses must give up those perks. All state lawmakers who were convicted and sentenced for roles in “Bonusgate” and “Computergate” roughly a decade ago saw their pensions revoked, at least initially.
Soon after the Attorney General publicized the charges against his fellow Democrat, some Harrisburg observers registered their disapproval at his leniency.
“Stealing from taxpayers is one of the highest betrayals of the public trust,” Matt Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, Inc. told the Harrisburg Patriot-News. “Former Rep. Davidson admitted guilt, but the big question here is why Attorney General Josh Shapiro gave her a sweetheart deal?
“When past lawmakers stole from the public, they had to forfeit their taxpayer-funded pension and lifetime healthcare benefits” Brouillette noted. “But Shapiro apparently cut a deal with Davidson that will allow her to continue taking money from Pennsylvania taxpayers for the rest of her life.”
‘Shapiro apparently cut a deal with Davidson that will allow her to continue taking money from Pennsylvania taxpayers for the rest of her life.’
State Sen. John DiSanto (R-Dauphin and Perry counties) isn’t happy with Shapiro’s approach either. Several weeks ago, the senator’s staff asked the prosecutor to explain his reason for pursuing charges light enough to permit Davidson to keep her public pension and health insurance, DiSanto told Broad + Liberty in an email. He said Shapiro has yet to answer the inquiry.
“…I guess he doesn’t really want to say why,” the senator wrote. “I would have expected more from our state’s top law enforcement official than what appears, based upon the information reported publicly, to be a sweetheart deal to a fellow Democratic politician. In this case, the state’s public pension forfeiture law, which I fought to strengthen, didn’t fail. Attorney General Shapiro failed. I’m sure the legislature will consider additional changes, but, as I’ve witnessed in my short time as a state senator, too many politicians fail to follow the intent of the law.”
The reform of Act 140 that DiSanto got enacted ensures that any state lawmaker or other employee who gets convicted of—or pleads guilty or no contest to—any felony or other crime punishable by over five years imprisonment must forfeit his or her pension.
A major impetus behind the senator’s effort was Bob Mellow’s reclaiming of his state retirement benefits in 2017. A Democratic former state Senate minority leader from Lackawanna County, Mellow served 16 months in prison for having his public staff fundraise for him on state time. He lost his pension after being sentenced, though the Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System (SERS) pension board restored it in 2017.
The SERS board concluded Mellow and his ex-wife had the right to split a $1.3 million back payment on his pension as well as a $20,000-per-month retirement benefit because the former senator didn’t personally gain financially from his crime. Mellow’s victory in this regard was unpopular with the public and, among similar perpetrators at that time, it was unique.
When former Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett (R) and his successor Linda Kelly (R) busted Keystone State politicians for using taxpayer-funded staff or other taxpayer-funded resources for campaign purposes—known then as the “Bonusgate” and “Computergate” scandals—they always pursued charges that would result in pension revocation.
Democrats they prosecuted included former Sen. Vince Fumo (Philadelphia), former House Minority Leader Bill DeWeese (Greene), former House Minority Whip Mike Veon (Beaver) and former Rep. Stephen Stetler (York). Republicans included former Sen. Jane Orie (Allegheny), former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, former House Speaker John Perzel (Philadelphia), former Rep. Jeff Habay (Allegheny) and former Rep. Brett Feese (Lycoming).
Of all the legislators convicted under the Corbett or Kelly Attorney General’s office, only one received a sentence that never led to pension revocation: Rep. Frank LaGrotta, a Democrat from Lawrence County, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to putting relatives on the state payroll for work they never performed.
So, this much is certain: Republicans Corbett and Kelly put away a number of state lawmakers from both parties, and slapped almost all of them with sentences that killed their state benefits. During subsequent control of the Attorney General’s Office by Democrats, a number of other Pennsylvania legislators—mostly Democrats—underwent prosecutions and convictions that forced them out of office, but almost none of them saw their benefits cancelled.
Most of those lawmakers’ trials took place during the tenure of Kelly’s successor, Kathleen Kane, whose prosecutorial record even most Democrats don’t bother to defend. The only state legislator Kane successfully prosecuted was Sen. LeAnna Washington (D-Philadelphia) for conflict of interest charges stemming from her use of staffers for campaign tasks. The senator served no jail time and got to keep her pension. Later, Kane declined to charge five state House members after a bribery sting operation, letting district attorneys pick up those cases instead. Four of the members struck plea agreements and kept their pensions while one, former Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, lost hers.
Since Shapiro took office in 2017, he has prosecuted two state legislators other than Davidson. One, former Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon), was jailed on child pornography charges and the other, former Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell (D-Philadelphia), was imprisoned for stealing over $500,000 from her charity. Neither had pensions, though. Folmer refused to participate in the SERS system and Johnson-Harrell had been in office less than a year.
That leaves Davidson as the only test so far as to whether Shapiro is willing to charge lawbreaking ex-lawmakers—particularly those in his own party—with offenses sufficient to cost them their state benefits. As political consultant and former Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley noted, however, there are some notable distinctions between Davidson and the defendants pursued by Corbett and Kelly. For one thing, Davidson has reportedly been more cooperative with state prosecutors early on than the Bonusgate/Computergate perpetrators were. For another, Bonusgate and Computergate involved many more conspirators than Davidson’s offenses did.
That leaves Davidson as the only test so far as to whether Shapiro is willing to charge lawbreaking ex-lawmakers—particularly those in his own party—with offenses sufficient to cost them their state benefits.
“The Bonusgate and Computergate investigations were large-scale conspiracies involving multiple elected officials and staffers who did not cooperate for the most part with the investigations—it went through the grand jury and multiple trials—and who were sentenced appropriately, as opposed to an individual who negotiated a plea with the office,” Harley told Broad + Liberty.
Still, Harley said, it makes sense for policymakers to minimize the ability of former lawmakers who misappropriated public resources to keep their state benefits.
“If you’re an elected public official and you violate the trust and are convicted of stealing taxpayer dollars, that certainly should be enough to lose your pension.”
The Attorney General’s Office did not return a request for comment.
Bradley Vasoli is president of Hill Media Strategies and a senior editor at The Houston Courant.