House Strips Convicted Members Of Pensions

Eight-term Repuiblican Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, center, is escorted after making a statement outside the federal courthouse in San Diego Monday Nov. 28, 2005 where he pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud, and tax evasion for underreporting his income in 2004. AP

Lawmakers convicted of crimes such as bribery, fraud and perjury will be stripped of their congressional pensions under legislation the House passed Tuesday in the latest effort by Congress to refurbish its scandal-scarred image.

The 431-0 House vote comes just four days after former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, received a 30-month prison term for taking political favors from Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist whose influence-peddling tactics helped make political corruption a major issue in the November elections.

Ney, as past chairman of the House Administration, last year backed similar legislation, saying members of Congress should be held to the highest standards.

"But that bill never passed, for which Congressman Ney is probably grateful," said freshman Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., sponsor of the measure. "Corrupt politicians deserve prison sentences, not taxpayer-funded pensions."

The House bill, like its Senate counterpart, is not retroactive and would not affect the benefits of Ney, who is eligible for a pension of about $29,000 a year if he waits until 2016, when he turns 62.

Also exempt would be former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., who last year was sentenced to more than eight years in prison after pleading guilty to receiving $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.

Cunningham could be receiving about $64,000 annually from his eight terms in Congress and his military service (which is not subject to forfeiture), according to the National Taxpayers Union, which tracks congressional pensions.

Minor differences with the Senate bill, approved last week as part of larger ethics and lobbying reform, must be reconciled before the measure can be signed into law.

The House bill applies to conduct that occurs after the bill becomes law, while the Senate bill doesn't take effect until the next session of Congress in 2009. Senate sponsors, led by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., expressed concerns about violating the 27th Amendment, which bars lawmakers from changing their compensation, mainly raising their own salaries, in a current session.

Under existing law, pensions can be taken away only if a lawmaker commits crimes such as treason or espionage. The House bill would extend that to other federal felonies related to the performance of official duties.

Those would include bribery of public officials, wrongfully acting as foreign agents, violating restrictions on members becoming lobbyists, conspiracy to commit such crimes, and perjury or persuading others to commit perjury.

Republicans complained that the bill didn't go far enough.

Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said he was unable to offer an amendment adding other public corruption felonies to those triggering pension forfeiture, including income tax evasion, wire fraud, intimidation to secure contributions and racketeering.

Republicans, denied opportunities to offer amendments in the first weeks of Democratic rule, also lashed out at last-minute Democratic tinkering on provisions including when the bill would take effect. "How this bill has come to the floor is an abomination of the rules," said Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

The legislation does allow the lawmaker to recoup personal contributions made to 401(k)-type plans and gives the director of the Office of Personnel Management authority, depending on circumstances, to provide benefits to the spouse and children of a convicted lawmaker.

Because it is not retroactive, the bill would exempt about 20 former lawmakers who ran afoul of the law and may be collecting benefits, according to the National Taxpayers Union.

Among those is Rep. John Murphy, D-N.Y., convicted in the ABSCAM scandal in 1980 and eligible for about $79,000, and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., who served 15 months in prison after pleading guilty in 1996 to two mail fraud charges but is potentially receiving benefits of $126,000.

Exact figures for pensions are not available because participation in pension programs is voluntary and payouts are not a matter of public record.
  • Joel Roberts

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