Plea deal can pave way to thousands in pension payouts

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

SPRINGFIELD— Even as former state Rep. Connie Howard abruptly submitted her resignation letter in July 2012, she was negotiating a plea deal with federal prosecutors who had taken a hard look at state grants she'd doled out and scholarship money she'd raised to help students.
As the talks about pleading guilty continued and the months went by, Howard was able to legally pocket $57,000 from her legislative pension. And she can continue picking up another $4,750 a month from the nation's worst-funded state retirement system until a federal judge sentences her on Nov. 21.
The Howard case illustrates a couple of things about state government and political corruption: It's beneficial for a veteran lawmaker to retire before admitting to wrongdoing because the pension spigot turns on and doesn't turn off until sentencing is official. And that provides a financial incentive to allow plea bargain discussions and the rest of the judicial process to play out as long as possible.
In some states, such matters may be academic. In Illinois, however, the House has two current members facing federal felony trials, and the previous two governors — Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich — went to prison for corruption.
While Ryan and Blagojevich lost their state pensions, it's possible Howard won't lose hers. In Illinois, there generally needs to be a straight line between a crime and a legislator's duties before a pension is denied or taken away. The charge prosecutors brought against Howard centers on a private scholarship fund, which could provide enough separation from her job as a legislator to preserve her pension.
The situation gives Illinois a fresh reason to delve deeper into state pension laws to find and eliminate all legal loopholes that allow corrupt politicians to cash in, said Susan Garrett, who chairs the board of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a watchdog group.
"We should have one general law that applies across the board that, when there is public corruption and somebody is found guilty or pleads guilty, the pension should be automatically removed," said Garrett, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Lake Forest who served 14 years in the General Assembly.