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2012 February 20 - 12:00 am

POLITICS and POLICY: Ala. Senator Wants To End Pensions of Corrupt Officials

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Roy Johnson kept getting his $132,060-a-year state pension after pleading guilty to taking bribes and kickbacks while serving as Alabama’s community college chancellor.

Retired Alabaster teacher Danny Acker will keep his $27,012-a-year pension even if he is convicted of sexually abusing fourth-graders at his school.

Republican State Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur is out to change that. Currently, Alabama law does not take away the state pension of public officials or employees convicted of crimes related to their jobs, except for judges.

Orr said he is preparing a bill for the legislative session that started Feb. 7 that would end the taxpayer-funded portion of the pension, which in most cases would be more than half. Convicted officials or employees would keep the portion resulting from their own contributions to the state pension program.

Orr said his bill will apply to future crimes because there would be legal problems with applying it retroactively. He said applying the bill to entire pensions would also create legal problems.

Orr, chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee, said Johnson’s pension and similar cases prompted the legislation, which he hopes will serve as a deterrent.

“Knowing that retirement benefits they earned over a decade or more of public service are on the line will make officials and employees think twice before succumbing to corrupt temptations,” he said.

Marc Reynolds, deputy director of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, said Johnson’s six-and-a-half-year prison sentence had no effect on the benefits he earned during 39 years of service.

The same is true for former Democratic state Rep. Terry Spicer of Elba, who pleaded guilty last year to taking bribes from a lobbyist while serving in the Alabama House. Reynolds said Spicer has 23½ years of service as an Alabama educator, most recently serving as school superintendent in Elba. He’s short of the 25 years of state service needed to draw a state pension immediately, but he will still qualify for one when he turns 60, Reynolds said.

Acker taught for 25 years in Shelby County and started drawing a pension when he retired in 2009, state records show.

Reynolds said the RSA’s managing boards haven’t taken a position on Orr’s legislation. But, he said, “when the crime occurs in the official duty of the official or employee, to pay retirement for the rest of their lives doesn’t make sense to me.”

Orr said his bill won’t consider felonies that have nothing to do with a person’s public position.

Orr is not the first legislator to try such legislation. Legislation to end the entire pension of officials convicted of crimes related to their jobs was introduced after a retired Mobile judge, Elwood Hogan, was convicted in 1984 of taking bribes while in office. But the legislation did not pass, Reynolds said.

Also, legislation similar to Orr has been offered by a Louisiana House member for that state’s upcoming session.

Orr’s pension bill is part of a government accountability package he’s offering next month. Other measures in the package include an end to legislators’ immunity from arrest when traveling to and from the Legislature and a ban on the Legislature naming any bridge, road, or building after a legislator or public official while they are still in office.

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