Bribery, Politics and Federal Pension Benefits

When Congress passes legislation to stop the corruption, or at least stop the perception of corruption, will the pensions of a small number of federal employees be affected?

Will federal employees be impacted by the corruption scandal sweeping through the Congress? As politicians start scrambling for cover, keep your eye on the fall-out.

A rules change that passed 379-50 bars from the House floor or the members’ gym ex-representatives who now work as lobbyists. The restriction also applies to former members’ spouses who are lobbyists.

No doubt, this is a first step. We can probably conclude that barring lobbyists who used to be Congressmen from using the gym won’t stop the flow of money going to our elected representatives.

Additional steps are likely to be taken to try and convince the American taxpayer that our elected representatives are not taking money or passing laws just to benefit those that send them enough to convince them a cause is right. You can look for some fall-out to impact federal employees in the executive branch as well.

Here is a quote from testimony before the House Government Reform Committee this week. “The retirement benefits that Members of Congress and high-level federal employees are entitled to receive after they retire often are more than the average American earns annually from a full-time job,” says Common Cause President Chellie Pingree.

With an introduction like that, you may want to start following the story.

If the changes are passed, the changes that are being advocated for the awarding of a federal retirement annuity are not likely to impact many federal employees regardless of grade or pay. Part of the criticism of Congress is that a Congressman who admits to taking bribes is still eligible to receive a federal pension. (SeeThere Oughta Be A Law)

And that liberal awarding of a federal annuity doesn’t apply just to Congressional representatives. A federal employee who admits to taking a bribe and gets fired can also collect a federal annuity–assuming he is otherwise entitled to one. The exceptions are for treason or espionage. A common crook may still be able to live comfortably after he gets out of prison as a result of qualifying for a federal pension payment.

Most federal employees are not likely to be in a position to have someone or some organization wanting to pay them a great deal of money to commit a crime by taking advantage of their position as a federal employee. But it does happen. A casual reading of news throughout the year finds federal employees convicted of a variety of offenses from selling information available through an internal computer system to working with smugglers of illegal aliens who need Social Security numbers or a green card.

Could a federal employee who is convicted of a serious crime also lose his or her entire pension payment? Here is another quote from Common Cause President Chillee Pingree:

“The fact that public servants who have seriously violated their duties to the public would be rewarded by a lifetime pension seems grossly unfair to average citizens. It seems particularly unfair when the majority of Americans can expect no pension when they retire, and when corporations like Enron implode and deny millions of innocent workers their retirement savings.”

We don’t know if Congress will pass a law that prohibits paying a pension to a federal employee (including Congressional representatives) who are convicted of a serious crime. If such a law is passed, we won’t know to whom it will apply and how it will be interpreted until it is passed into law and tested in the courts. If passed, it is likely it will only apply to the highest ranking agency employees.

Obviously, very few federal employees commit serious crimes. Most are not in a position to get a couple of million in bribes even if they wanted to commit a crime to get the money. But federal employees are in a position of public trust and those that violate that trust are opening themselves and their agencies to criticism, embarrassment and reflecting on the integrity of our government.

It is also possible that a federal employee who commits a serious crime could end up without a job, with a destroyed reputation, no money and no pension–despite having worked for Uncle Sam for many years.

When this issue first surfaced, a number of readers commented on it with (unsurprisingly) a wide variety of opinions.

For now, 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. That may change. Watch your back and, if you are ever tempted to engage in criminal behavior for any reason, consider whether any amount of money is worth what you may be putting at risk.

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