Editor’s note: This story has been updated. The original version did not report that existing state law bars legislators convicted of a felony from collecting their pensions.
By Bruce DePuyt
A bill targeting the pensions of state legislators who run afoul of the law is likely to die in a committee chairman’s drawer this week, amid concerns the measure is unconstitutional.
The measure, sponsored by Del. Christian J. Miele (R-Baltimore County) would strip legislators convicted of a felony “committed in the course of the official’s duties and responsibilities” of any pension benefit earned while serving in Annapolis. In addition, it would require them to reimburse the state for any per-diem expenses, covering food and lodging, that they received between the time they were indicted and conviction.
“This is about protecting taxpayers,” Miele said. “These are convicted criminals. [Why should] a legislator who has eroded the public’s trust be able to get public monies, after they’ve broken the law and been convicted? It just doesn’t make sense.”
The pension forfeiture portion of Miele’s bill mirrors a provision adopted by the General Assembly Compensation Commission for the 2011-2014 and 2015-2018 terms, language that was recently re-adopted for the next four years. Despite that action, Miele said his provision deserves to be further codified in law because “members of the General Assembly [should be] held to the state ethical standard” as the governor, comptroller, attorney general and others.
In written testimony, R. Dean Kenderdine, executive director of the State Retirement Agency, urged the committee to consult with the attorney general’s office before proceeding, as the state constitution gives “exclusive jurisdiction over compensation for the members of the General Assembly” to the GCAA, and therefore Miele’s measure could be unconstitutional.
In addition to adding members of the legislature, the measure would apply to “an employee who received compensation at a rate equivalent to at least state grade level 16 and was designated a public official under the public ethics law.”
The first-term legislator was the only person to testify at the March 6 committee hearing for his ambitiously named Clean Up Annapolis Act. He did not seek, nor does he have Democratic co-sponsors or support from groups such as Common Cause. His bill was highlighted last week by the state Republican Party in a media release attacking the “political machine.”
While former Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks’ recent guilty plea puts the spotlight back on corruption, Miele said his bill was not targeted at the Baltimore Democrat.
“This bill was not in any way targeted at any specific legislator. In fact, because of ex post facto laws, it would exempt [Oaks and other recent targets of legal action]. And it should exempt any other legislator who is currently receiving a pension who may have been convicted of bribery.”
Miele’s bill has been jointly referred to two House committees, Environment and Transportation, and Appropriations.
Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore City), the head of the appropriations panel, told Maryland Matters, “I think that’s a valid discussion. I do. I believe that in the city council in Baltimore, if you’re convicted of certain crimes, you cannot collect your pension, so I think it’s a valid issue.”
But Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), who chairs Environment and Transportation, expressed strong misgivings.
“When a person earns a pension, through working hard and following the rules, if later on in life they do something stupid and they get thrown into a jail cell, this pension is going to benefit their family. And should we punish the family of a person who has earned a pension because that person did something wrong later on, my answer is no you don’t,” he said.
Barve said that protection should apply to “all people who have pensions.”
With the General Assembly down to its final days, Barve has no plans to bring the matter to a vote.
“When people are convicted of crimes and sentenced, they should do their time. They should be punished for the crime that they committed. But they shouldn’t be stripped of assets that they legally earned prior to that,” he said.
Maryland lawmakers become pension-eligible when they complete their second term, when they qualify for 24 percent of their legislative salary in retirement (currently $904 per month).
The percentage used to calculate their benefit increases with each term, to a maximum of 66.7 percent for lawmakers who are elected six times or more. Those retirees would earn $2,511 per month.
Miele is running unopposed for the District 8 Senate seat in the Republican primary.
“Good government and ethics reform bills — they die in darkness,” he said. “I feel like a one-man army.”