Pennsylvania has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to corruption among elected officials. In just the last few years both the elected state treasurer and attorney general have pled guilty or been convicted of crimes and forced to resign.
This is, unfortunately, nothing new. Entire books have been written detailing the sordid history of official corruption in state government. We even witnessed the spectacle of two former speakers of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives – one Democrat and one Republican – occupying the same prison at the same time.
Scandals ensnared a long list of powerful legislative leaders making household names of John Perzel, Bill DeWeese, Robert Mellow, Vincent Fumo and Mike Veon to name just a few. Not to be outdone, the judicial branch chipped in with two justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court being forced to resign in an e-mail scandal and another convicted of using public resources for campaigning.
To the degree there is any good news in all of this it has been that these wayward public officials have been caught, indicted, prosecuted, convicted and most sent off to prison. But the story has not stopped with prison sentences with some emerging from the jailhouse armed with lawyers seeking to regain their pensions, reduce or vacate fines, or even overturn their convictions.
Unfortunately the courts have become willing accomplices in allowing these convicted felons to escape parts of their punishment. Recently the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that former Speaker DeWeese, who has already served his prison time, will not be required to pay $116,000 in restitution. This based on the astounding theory that the commonwealth was not a "direct victim" in the case.
Keeping in mind that we the taxpayers are the commonwealth; that DeWeese’s actions in office resulted in the misuse of our money by having state workers illegally perform political work on government time; and that our tax dollars were used to investigate, prosecute, and confine DeWeese it is an appalling act of judicial jujitsu to claim we are not "direct victims," because we have clearly suffered financial loss. That same court also left former Speaker John Perzel off the hook for $1 million in restitution ordered by the lower courts.
In another case, former Senate Democratic Leader Robert Mellow has petitioned the state to restore his state pension which was ordered forfeited upon his corruption conviction. Mellow is now arguing that he is entitled to a $20,000 per month pension payment from the state’s public employee pension fund. It might be some time before Mellow’s appeal is decided.
While the appellate courts have gone soft on punishing these criminals, the state legislature is moving aggressively to close the pension loophole. Current law only makes about a dozen offenses subject to pension forfeiture. As a result, many of the accused plead guilty to lesser offenses in order to preserve their pension benefits. The state House of Representatives this past week – in a rare show of bipartisan unity – voted nearly unanimously to make all felony convictions subject to pension forfeiture. Similar legislation is pending in the state Senate.
Given the recent sordid history of corruption in Pennsylvania’s judicial system it is outrageous to see our appellate courts weaken the penalties for those convicted of committing crimes in office. These recent rulings further erode the credibility of and confidence in our courts at the exact time the judiciary is still reeling from its own scandals.
Those convicted of abusing the public trust deserve not only prison time, but they should not benefit from lifelong public pensions after having committed crimes while in office. As well, taxpayers deserve to be compensated for our financial losses through the payment of restitution and prosecution costs.
Prosecutors and the lower courts have done their job in cleaning up the state of corruption that is Pennsylvania. It is a miscarriage of justice to see the appellate courts chip away at penalties that must justly be paid by those who have flagrantly violated the public trust.
What can you as a citizen and a voter do about this? Here in Pennsylvania we elect the judges and justices who serve on our statewide appellate courts. This November we will elect a Supreme Court Justice, four Superior Court Judges and two Commonwealth Court Judges. Make an effort to learn which candidates will hold those who violate the public trust accountable for their actions.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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