Politics & Policy

Why Are Ex-lawmakers Convicted of Corruption Still Receiving Federal Pensions?

(Evgen_Prozhyrko/Getty Images)
Washington bureaucrats have stymied efforts to ensure that a law against the practice is being enforced.

Members of Congress convicted of corruption should be legally prohibited from receiving taxpayer money. This is simple common sense, as even Congress itself agrees. Yet federal bureaucrats have stymied efforts to make it so.

After several high-profile scandals involving politicians, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) of 2007 specified corruption-related crimes that would lead to the loss of a lawmaker’s congressional pension. Additional crimes were added to the list in 2012 by the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act.

Since these restrictions could not be applied retroactively, the National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) monitored the criminal cases of crooked politicians to see who would be the first to lose a pension. It looked like it would be Representative Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) who was found guilty of 23 charges of corruption and sentenced to ten years in prison in 2016. Fattah’s 22 years in Congress would have entitled him to a $55,000 annual pension assuming he opted for the maximum benefit level, had he not been convicted.

Yet after reaching out to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the agency responsible for administering such benefits, NTUF was informed that Fattah remained eligible due to a loophole in HLOGA: The law applied only upon “final conviction” of a crime, which happens when all appeals have been exhausted. Since the appeals process can often drag on for years, this was a huge gift to convicted lawmakers.

In 2017, after the loophole was identified, Representative Claudia Tenney (R., N.Y.) introduced legislation to close it. Her bill would have OPM withhold payment of pensions upon conviction. If a lawmaker’s convictions were overturned on appeal, he would then receive the full amount owed to him, but he wouldn’t collect taxpayer dollars while the appeals process played out. That way, a fair balance could be struck between protecting taxpayers and protecting a lawmaker’s due-process rights. (It’s an approach adopted by Senators Jacky Rosen [D., Nev.] and Rick Scott [R., Fla.], who have introduced the similar No CORRUPTION Act this year.)

In 2019, two years after Tenney introduced her bill, a court of appeals overturned a few of Fattah’s convictions but left his ten-year sentence intact. Last year, he was released from prison to a halfway house in Philadelphia. Even though his sentence for racketeering, bribery, conspiracy, and fraud runs through August of 2025, Fattah has founded a new for-profit venture and is soliciting public donations online to support it.

You would think that four years into a sentence for corruption charges and with no ongoing appeals, Fattah would have lost his taxpayer-funded pension by now. But the bureaucracy at OPM hasn’t yet pulled the plug.

When first asked by NTUF, OPM officials claimed that a determination on Fattah’s eligibility to receive his pension could not be made until they’d gotten confirmation from the Department of Justice on his case status. Nothing in the law requires OPM to wait for a special smoke signal from the DOJ, and Fattah’s case is a matter of public record. So NTUF pressed the issue, and OPM officials clammed up, saying they would not make any public statement regarding any individual beneficiary’s status. It doesn’t take a genius to see the problem with this stance: If OPM refuses to respond to public inquiries about the pension statuses of convicted lawmakers, then taxpayers may never know if the law is working as Congress intended.

When HLOGA was being considered in Congress, one of its co-sponsors, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), said that, “fortunately, this bill ends [the] practice” of collecting a pension even after being convicted of corruption. Congress should take steps to ensure that bureaucrats at the Office of Personnel Management get the memo.

Demian Brady is the vice president of research at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to research and education on tax and budget policy at all levels of government.

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