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Pension Reform Bill Could Finally Keep Convicted Lawmakers From Collecting

By Jim Bochnowski in News on May 6, 2015 3:20PM

In the world of Illinois politics, there's probably never going to be a shortage of government officials going to court. But did you know that under current law, as government officials await sentencing, they can still collect government pension checks?

The Chicago Tribune recently highlighted the case of ex-Rep. Connie Howard. Howard is a Democrat who represented the South Side of Chicago from 1995 until 2012, when she suddenly resigned her seat right before federal authorities subpoenaed records about her activities as chair of the House Computer Technology Committee. She pled guilty in November 2013 to using $28,000 from a fund to benefit needy students for her personal use. Because Howard is going to be called to testify as a witness in a separate fraud trial, she hasn't been properly sentenced yet.

It turns out, due to a loophole in Illinois pension law, in the time between her pleading guilty to committing fraud and now, she's been able to collect a pension check, which comes out to about $5,000 a month.

That policy could come to a halt thanks to the General Assembly Retirement System, which handles pensions for state legislators, which has authorized a move that would suspend retirement checks as soon as a retired member pleads guilty to a felony or is convicted by a judge.

Under the current law, even once sentenced legislators stop receiving pension checks, they are still sometimes able to receive a refund from the state for pension contributions that were not paid out. For example, ex-Governor Ryan (the one whose office gave out drivers licenses to those who clearly were not qualified to be truck drivers) received a check for $235,000 for contributions he made over the course of 30 years as a legislator. The General Assembly Retirement System also put an end to that policy.

While the state's pension system remains a financial mess going forward, members of the General Assembly are applauding the move. As Sen. Don Harmon said, "We are struggling with inadequate pension fund balances, and we are acutely sensitive to making payments that the system should not be making."