Former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon was found guilty last week of perjury and voter fraud for lying about living in his district. But even though the jury concluded that he wasn’t actually eligible to serve as councilman during the time he was living elsewhere, Alarcon will still collect his full $116,000 annual pension. It’s time for Los Angeles to follow the state’s lead and adopt a law to ensure that public employees who abuse their positions lose the pension benefits accrued during the time they committed their crimes.
City Councilman Mitch Englander has proposed an ordinance under which city employees convicted of work-related felonies would forfeit their entire pensions. He introduced his motion after The Times reported that a building inspector who pleaded guilty to taking bribes would still receive his $72,000 annual pension. Englander argues that the possibility of losing such a valuable asset would deter bad behavior by public employees. He’s right. Stripping a city employee of his full pension benefits could be a good deterrent. But it wouldn’t be fair.
Take Alarcon, for example. Why should his terrible decision to disregard the residency laws at the end of his political career cause him to lose all his pension benefits from two decades of legitimate city service?
State law more appropriately targets the years of criminal behavior. In 2012, after Bell city leaders were caught illegally boosting their pay, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed and legislators passed a law under which public employees who are convicted of a felony related to their official duties must give up retirement credits they accrued during the period of their crimes. The law allows them to keep their own retirement contributions, but takes away the portion contributed by the state. This makes sense. Someone who is illegally holding public office or using the office to line his pockets isn’t a legitimate employee and should not earn the benefits of a legitimate employee. That state law doesn’t apply to employees of charter cities, like Los Angeles, so the City Council must adopt its own pension forfeiture ordinance, which would apply to future convictions.
To be sure, the state’s narrower pension forfeiture law can be more symbolic than punitive in some instances. In Alarcon’s case, he was accused of lying about his residency when he ran for office in 2007, but he was convicted in connection with his behavior between November 2008 and May 2009. If he were subject to the state law, he would lose only about six months of pension credit.
But there’s a value to symbolism. Even if the dollar amounts are not that high, there’s no reason why taxpayers should foot the bill for the retirement pay of officials who betrayed the public trust or weren’t eligible for their jobs to begin with.
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