States try to strip crooked pols of their pensions

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- Frank Corrente was caught on camera taking bribes from an FBI informant as part of a corruption probe that brought him down along with his boss, then-Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci.

It was enough to put Corrente in prison. But it wasn't enough to deny him a pension.

Providence, like many other cities and states, allows disgraced public servants to collect their pensions. But pressure is building in some places to change that practice.

Providence Mayor David Cicilline wants retirement benefits automatically revoked for city employees who are sent to prison for more than a year for corruption or other job-related felonies. The change would not apply retroactively to Corrente, and Cianci has not applied for a pension.

"I think it is an important way to ensure that there are consequences when people violate the public trust," said Cicilline, who proposed the change in October after the city Retirement Board awarded Corrente, Cianci's top aide, $1,852.61 a month.

Connecticut passed a law last summer allowing a judge to reduce or revoke the pension of a public employee - a reform approved in the wake of the 2004 corruption case against former Gov. John Rowland, who will be eligible for a $50,000-a-year pension even though he spent 10 months in prison after pleading guilty to graft.

And a New Jersey bill would automatically bar public officials convicted of crimes from collecting their retirement benefits.

Some opponents of such legislation say that revoking the pensions of corrupt public servants raises fundamental questions of fairness. Some fear a blanket approach would punish a retiree's innocent spouse and children and deprive the former employee of credit for years or even decades of service ruined by, in some cases, one bad act.

"Do you take away 29 years, 364 days of work?" asked Providence City Councilman John Lombardi.

That argument did not work for former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who was stripped of his entire $197,000 in annual retirement benefits by a state pension board. Ryan had argued that he should still be paid at least some pension because he held various offices over more than 30 years that were unconnected to criminal activity. But the state attorney general disagreed, and a judge upheld the pension board's decision.

Corrente, 80, was a key figure in the FBI's City Hall investigation, dubbed Operation Plunder Dome. He was convicted in 2002 of attempted extortion and other crimes and spent more than four years behind bars before he was released in 2006.

In August, the pension board awarded Corrente benefits for his first 20 years in city government, from 1967 to 1987. The board said he was not entitled to a pension from 1990 to 1999, during which the crimes occurred.

The mayor is contesting Corrente's pension in court, and Corrente could be years away from collecting any of his benefits.

In the meantime, supporters of the pension change said they hope they have found a powerful deterrent to corruption.

"If you're convicted of a crime associated with your publicly held responsibilities, you're not worthy of a pension," said Councilman Terrence Hassett.

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