Convicted on counts of bribery, extortion and conspiracy to fabricate evidence, Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez faces up to 55 years in prison and has resigned as mayor.
Should Perez, in addition to jail time, fines, loss of job and public humiliation, also lose all or part of his pension? The answer is a qualified no.
A pension is part of an employment contract, no different than a salary or health benefits. Because of this, federal law prohibits the revocation of a private pension.
But mayors are not ordinary employees. They are not hired, they are elected. When they are elected, they effectively enter into a special sort of contract with the citizens of the city, and they swear to uphold the laws of the city and the state.
In 2008, the state legislature passed a law requiring the attorney general to go to the Superior Court to have a convicted municipal or state official's pension reduced or revoked. The law became effective on Oct.1, 2008.
The stated purposes for the passage of this pension revocation law were to penalize government officials who breach the public's trust, and to deter criminal conduct by government officials.
When Perez committed his crimes, there was no such law. So, the law could not have deterred him. In fact, it is unfair to apply this law to crimes committed before its passage. Perez had every reason to believe that his pension was payment for his labor and that it could not be taken away from him.
An equally significant purpose for the passage of the pension revocation law was the popularity of retribution. Like capital punishment, pension revocation satisfies the worst sorts of human emotion, such as anger and vengefulness.
This is why pension revocation should not be required or applied in an all-or-nothing way. Relatively minor misconduct should not mean the loss of a pension earned by years of public service. And officials should not have penalty piled on penalty just because a politically popular law allows it.
Fortunately, Connecticut's pension revocation law is excellent. It both gives the judge wide discretion and provides guidelines for the use of this discretion. The judge is asked to take into account the severity of the crime, the amount of the government's loss, the degree of public trust in the particular official (more in a mayor than in an employee) and the extent to which the official has provided help to law enforcement officials. The judge can also take into consideration, in Perez's case, the fact that the revocation law was not passed until after the crimes were committed.
In addition, the pension revocation law allows the judge to have fines and restitution paid out of the pension, it protects the official's family members to the extent of their financial need, and it does not apply to the official's contributions to his pension or to health and other benefits. So, if the judge were to revoke Perez's pension in whole or in part, the pension is likely to be given to Perez's wife, who has had serious health problems.
Here's how the law's considerations could be applied to the current situation. Perez's crimes are moderately severe. A great deal of public trust is placed in a mayor. It does not appear that Perez worked with the authorities to help clean up politics in Hartford. He acted before the law was passed. Two-and-a-half considerations against him; one, the biggest, in his favor.
But because Perez has a sick wife and likely is going to prison, there is little chance of the pension being taken away from the Perez household. In any event, I'd rather see Perez keep the pension and, after he is out of jail, take a relatively low-paying job where he can do good for the community, rather than calling in favors for a plum position or becoming a lobbyist. The best restitution for Hartford would be to see Perez set an example for the city's youth, adults and politicians.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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