Editorial: Rethink pension law, but carefully
Former New London police chief David Seastrand resigned after he was accused of offering to drop criminal charges against a Colby-Sawyer College student if she posed for nude photographs. No criminal charges were filed against Seastrand as a result, but more complaints were lodged against him in the past week. Whatever his fate, one thing seems secure: his pension. Presuming he applies for it, Seastrand will receive a retirement benefit that, based on his salary and years of service, should be about $50,000 per year.
Under New Hampshire law, public employees who admit to or are convicted of a crime committed while serving in their official capacity do not forfeit their pensions. Former New Castle police chief James Murphy, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to stealing $8,675 in donations from a charity food drive, was not barred from receiving his pension. Nor was former Allenstown police chief James McGonigle, who in 2007 admitted to stealing a similar amount from several police organizations.
About half the states, including Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont, have a law that calls for automatic or discretionary forfeiture of pensions for crimes committed by public employees serving in their official capacity. Some states, like Vermont, limit forfeiture to cases involving financial crimes. Others allow it for a range of offenses, and some for any felony committed while serving in an official capacity.
It’s galling to think that a trusted public employee can be convicted of stealing public money or abusing his power in office yet continue to collect public funds in the form of a pension. And the potential of forfeiting a pension earned after years of service could conceivably deter corruption.
New Hampshire lawmakers should consider instituting a pension forfeiture law in cases of public employees convicted of a crime, but any legislation that emerges should be crafted carefully and in cooperation with unions representing public employees.
The details are myriad. For instance, which public employees would be covered by a New Hampshire forfeiture law? All current employees or just future workers? How would it affect those fully vested in the pension system versus those who weren’t? Several courts have ruled that public employee pensions are not gratuities but contractual obligations that cannot be unilaterally modified by one side – which is why union participation would be critical.
Some forfeiture laws are draconian. In one New Jersey case, modified by a judge, a police officer was refused a pension after decades of meritorious service because he fixed a traffic ticket for a friend. The officer, who, like most police officers and firefighters, was presumably not eligible to collect Social Security, would have forfeited his family’s entire retirement income. The punishment, as the judge ruled, was unfair to the officer’s dependents and did not fit the crime.
Some states call for the forfeiture of only that portion of the pension earned after the offense was committed. Others make forfeiture discretionary and conditioned on its impact on dependents. Still others don’t permit forfeiture but do permit pensions to be garnished to pay restitution plus prosecution and court costs.
Federal pension law has long barred the forfeiture of private pensions. The abuse of power by public employees in high office justifies a legislative look at a public employee pension forfeiture law but not unilateral action.