Pensions Follow Ex-Lawmakers to Prison

You've probably never heard of 78-year-old Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina. But after this story, you might never forget him.

It's not so much what the Republican has done during his 25 years in Congress, but what he's not going to do - take his congressional pension, reports CBS News investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

"I figured taxpayers pay my salary - not a bad salary," he said. "And I figure that's sufficient. Let me fend for myself after the salary's collected."

As far as we know, only Coble and one other congressman, Texas Republican Ron Paul, have pledged to refuse their pensions - pensions funded primarily by your tax dollars.

Just 18 percent of private workers have a traditional pension, down from nearly 80 percent 25 years ago.

Today, more than 400 retired members of Congress are receiving pensions. For 2009, the bill comes to more than $26 million. Add to that $7.4 million more in taxpayer contributions to current members' future pensions every year.

Few would begrudge the hardworking member of Congress a little retirement security. What might surprise you is that those who have dishonored the office can still get their pensions - even while doing time in prison.

Specific details are kept confidential, even though your money's at stake.

So we used the congressional pension formulas to calculate estimates of what congressional convicts are getting.

Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., admitted accepting millions in bribes and is currently serving an . But he is still getting more than $42,000 a year while in prison.

Jim Traficant, D-Ohio, also took bribes while in office. But he didn't even have to ask for the $323,425 in pension money he received while serving seven years in prison.

Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., served 15 months in prison in the mid-1990s for his role in a corruption scandal. He earned a six-figure pension the whole time. And he currently receives more than $176,000 a year, which includes a $9,000 cost of living increase this year alone.

According to public records, he owns three homes and waterfront property on San Marco Island in Florida.

All three refused to speak to CBS News.

In all, we found more than two dozen former members of Congress still eligible for federal pensions, despite being convicted of serious crimes.

"I think it's abhorrent that convicted members of Congress who are serving time or about to serve time [to receive retirement benefits]. They should not be earning a pension," said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who oversees congressional pension funding.

In 2007, Congress passed a law to . But constitutionally, it can't apply to crimes that have already been committed.

That's great news for ex-Congressman William Jefferson, D-La., who was shown taking a bribe in 2005 in an undercover FBI video.

, he could exit after 13 years with a roughly $674,000 nest egg.

That's more than seven times the $90,000 investigators found hidden among the Boca burgers in his freezer.

Twenty-five years ago, Coble tried to use his sharp pencil to eliminate congressional pensions altogether "to cut down on some of that wasteful spending," he said.

He didn't get much support from his colleagues.

"I was the beneficiary of some rude remarks after that first effort," he said.

Today, he said it's up to each individual member to decide - like he did - whether they'll take a pension.

"I've pledged my assurance I won't take the pension. That's between my constituents and me. As far as convicted felons, I guess that's between their constituents and themselves."

Congressional felons given gold watches that never stop ticking - courtesy of your tax dollars.
  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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