Jack Johnson's golden parachute

Our view: The way to deter officials from betraying the public trust is to make sure the consequences of doing so follow them for the rest of their lives

July 25, 2011

The case of former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson, who pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges in May, was back in the news this week after it was revealed that he is continuing to collect his $39,468 state pension, despite having admitted to taking more than $200,000 in bribes from developers. The disgraced former official reportedly has been collecting the money since January, thanks to a loophole in Maryland law that allows the state to deny public officials' pension benefits only if they are convicted of a crime while serving in office.

Mr. Johnson, who served as county executive from 2002 until last December (and before that eight years as county state's attorney), was arrested by federal and state agents on Nov. 12, a month before his final term ended. But he didn't plead guilty to two felony charges of extortion and witness and evidence tampering until May 17, five months after leaving his post. For those crimes he could receive up to 13 years in prison when he is sentenced in September. But because his conviction occurred after he left office, he is still entitled to collect a state pension for the rest of his life.

The situation recalls the public furor over former Baltimore City Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was able to keep her $83,000 pension as part of a plea agreement after being found guilty of stealing gift cards intended for needy children and then lying about it.

The city pension system, which is separate from the state's, lacks the convicted-while-in-office loophole that is allowing Mr. Johnson to keep his pension. It states that any city employee or official who is convicted of a crime that is punishable by incarceration of more than six months or a fine of more than $500, provide the offense is "committed by the member in the performance of his duties as an employee or an official of the City of Baltimore and committed against the City of Baltimore."

Ms. Dixon's crime would have been sufficient to make her ineligible for her pension, but despite the jury's finding, she was not, technically, "convicted." Her plea agreement with then-State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh allowed her to receive probation before judgment, which state courts have ruled does not count as a conviction. The $83,000 a year for life is essentially the price Baltimore paid for Ms. Dixon to agree to resign immediately rather than drag the city through months or years of uncertainty as she appealed the jury's decision.

That doesn't make it any less outrageous. Citizens have every right to be angry that officials who violate the public trust so flagrantly can nevertheless count on being supported for the rest of their lives with taxpayer dollars. The principle that they can continue to profit at the public's expense makes a mockery of their oath of office and fuels suspicions that a different standard of justice applies for holding public officials accountable for their wrongdoing.

Anne Arundel County Republican Del. Ron George reportedly is drafting legislation that would close the loophole in the state's pension law by denying benefits to any public official convicted of crimes that were committed while in office, regardless of when the conviction occurs. Delegate George rightly points out that unless the law is changed, an official who believes he or she may be convicted can always hang on to their pension simply by resigning before a court finds them guilty.

That's unacceptable, and we hope the General Assembly takes up the matter when it meets next year. But Baltimore's City Council doesn't have to wait until then. City officials can further erase the ethical stain of Ms. Dixon's misconduct by adopting legislation that denies pension benefits to officials who plead guilty to job-related crimes committed while in office, as the former mayor did, in addition to those who meet the state's definition for being convicted.

There should be no golden parachutes for convicted felons who betray the public trust. The best way to deter individuals who occupy such positions from abusing them is to make perfectly clear that the consequences of doing so will follow them for the rest of their lives.

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