“There Oughta’ Be A Law”

The federal retirement program is probably the safest and most secure retirement program available–even if the recipient has committed a serious crime.

There is a good chance you have not paid much attention to the case of Randy ("Duke") Cunningham.

Cunningham is the Congressman from California that recently pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from defense contractors and others in exchange for government contracts.

Many taxpayers were surprised to learn that, even though Cunningham has admitted accepting bribes and has resigned from Congress, he will still be eligible for a federal retirement pension. He resigned last month and could receive up to 10 years in prison. Notwithstanding how his actions reflect on the quality or integrity of our government institutions, he will still be able to receive a federal employee retirement annuity of about $40,000 per year.

Cunningham cannot be deprived of his pension unless he is guilty of a crime against the United States. Taking a bribe does not disqualify him from getting the money. He would have had to have been convicted of espionage or treason.

It will surprise some readers to learn that the retirement plan for federal employees is the same. If you are a federal employee and sent to prison for accepting bribes or some other serious crime, you will still get your federal annuity–unless you have committed a crime against the United States such as treason.

Some in Congress also appear upset–at least in public–about the news that their former colleague will still be getting a regular paycheck from Uncle Sam. They have introduced legislation to make it illegal to receive a federal annuity after conviction for any number of offenses such as accepting a bribe, soliciting gifts, perjury, or lying to a grand jury. The Public Trust and Accountability Act would apply the same provisions to all federal employees and not just to Members of Congress. The provisions of the bill would not be applied retroactively to former Congressman Cunningham in any event.

The Washington Post quotes Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE), a co-sponsor of the bill as stating at a press conference yesterday, "It’s time to reassure the American people that we are serious about upholding ethical standards."

To many, that has a hollow ring as the term "ethical Congressmen" sometimes sounds like an oxymoron.

While some in Congress are surprised to learn that Cunningham will not lose his pension, it’s not like this is the first time something like this has happened. Nor is it the first time that legislation like this has been proposed in Congress.

When Congressman James Traficant was convicted on 10 counts of racketeering, fraud and bribery several years ago, a similar bill was proposed. At that time, legislation was proposed to prohibit lawmakers from receiving a pension after being thrown out of Congress for actions like bribery. No doubt, some Congressmen were surprised at that time that crooks convicted while serving in Congress get to keep their pensions after accepting bribes and committing other serious white collar crimes. That incident, apparently, was not the time to "reassure the American people that we are serious about upholding ethical standards." The proposed legislation survived the press conferences but never made it out of the committee for a vote. Congressman Terry was also a co-sponsor of that bill.

It may come to pass that any federal employee, including Members of Congress, will lose their hard-earned federal pension if convicted of serious crimes. Most taxpayers probably think that is the way the law should read and probably they think that is how the law reads today.

Perhaps the underlying desire of Congressional representatives to adhere to high ethical standards will come to the surface and legislation such as this will pass this time. If it doesn’t, at least the issue made a few Congressman look good playing to the crowd while touting their desire to advance their cry for higher standards. No doubt, there will be another opportunity to call another press conference calling for a new law the next time something similar occurs.

In the meantime, if you are a federal employee, your pension is secure, even if you end up in prison–unless you have committed a crime such as treason.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47