For his 22 years serving in Congress, former Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Penn., was eligible for a $55,000 pension, assuming he opted for the maximum level of benefits. Then in June 2016, he was found guilty on 23 charges of corruption and resigned from office. At the time, it looked like he would become the first member of Congress to forfeit his congressional pension under a 2007 ethics reform law, barring those convicted of certain crimes from collecting. But, nearly a year and a half after his conviction, Fattah remains eligible for the generous perk thanks to a loophole in the law.
After Fattah was convicted on federal charges of racketeering, money laundering, bribery, and fraud, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay $614,000 in restitution. He joined a list of disgraced former members of Congress, including Jim Traficant, D-Ohio, William Jefferson, D-La., Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., who were sent to jail for corruption.
All of those members, however, were still able to collect their congressional pensions because their crimes were committed prior to the passage of the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. That bill prohibited pensions for members convicted of certain crimes related to corruption. Its provisions were strengthened further with the 2012 Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, which included additional crimes that would result in pension forfeiture, including tax evasion, vote buying, and violations committed while serving in other public offices in the federal, state, or local government.
The reason Fattah is able to continue collecting his pension despite his convictions occurring after these bills is that they require the Office of Personnel and Management to cut off a member’s pension only after being “finally convicted.” This means that a convicted member can continue to collect an annuity as long as he or she is able to submit appeals against the case that delay final resolution. This can drag out the final determination for years, as Fattah has proven by being embroiled in appeals that have been largely rejected.
Fattah’s most recent appeal against his sentence led to some confusion of whether he had been “finally convicted.” National Taxpayers Union Foundation staff reached out to OPM for clarification and was told, “Representative Fattah has not exhausted his appeal rights. Therefore, OPM will wait until any appellate activity has concluded before taking appropriate action regarding Representative Fattah’s benefits.”
No doubt, other politicians facing corruption charges are taking notes. This includes former Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla, who was found guilty of fraud and tax crimes committed during her tenure in Congress. She has already unsuccessfully sought to appeal her conviction and is now seeking to delay her Nov. 16 sentencing because of damage to her home by Hurricane Irma.
If former members of Congress convicted of corruption can drag out appeal after failed appeal and continue to collect their annuity, then the pension reform law is effectively rendered toothless. Congressional pensions are already two to three times more generous than those offered to similarly-salaried workers in the private sector. That convicted criminals can continue to receive those benefits due to a drafting loophole simply boggles the mind.
Lawmakers should consider strengthening the congressional pension reform laws. One step would be to change the wording to clarify that a pension is forfeited as soon as a sentence is imposed after conviction — or, if necessary, when the ex-member actually begins serving the sentence. Even if a subsequent appeal is successful, federal law says that a person who was wrongly imprisoned can be awarded up to $50,000 per year, and the Supreme Court ruled in April that fees and restitution paid must be returned. In the meantime, ex-congressmen in the jailhouse will, with the help of lawyers on the outside or prison law libraries on the inside, keep seeking a free pass.
Demian Brady is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is director of research at the National Taxpayers Union.
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