WASHINGTON -- Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, behind bars for bribery, can at least be consoled by the federal pension he'll continue to collect. Current or future lawmakers convicted of crimes may not be so lucky.
The Senate on Friday voted 87-0 to strip away the pensions of members of Congress convicted of white-collar crimes such as bribery, perjury and fraud. That could result in benefit losses of more than $100,000 a year.
"With this vote, we are preventing members of Congress who steal or cheat from receiving a lifelong pension that is paid for by the taxpayers," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., sponsor of the measure with Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo.
Part of ethics bill
The pension measure was attached to a comprehensive ethics and lobbying bill that the Democratic-controlled Senate, trying to improve the image of Congress after the scandals of last year, took up as its first legislative act of the year.
The Democrats' return to power in both the House and Senate came after a campaign in which they stressed the "culture of corruption" under GOP rule.
Cunningham, R-Calif., was sentenced to more than eight years in prison last year after pleading guilty to receiving $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Among the favors he received were a Rolls-Royce, Persian rugs, antique furniture, use of a yacht and a lavish graduation party for his daughter.
Also last December, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, resigned after pleading guilty to conspiracy and making false statements in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Kerry's office said that by law Congress cannot take away pensions retroactively and the so-called "Duke Cunningham Act" won't affect the benefits of Cunningham or Ney. It would also not touch the military benefits of a veteran such as Cunningham.
Under current law, pensions can be forfeited only if a lawmaker commits crimes such as treason or espionage.
The National Taxpayers Union, which tracks congressional pensions, said Ney, who faces about two years in prison, would be eligible for about $29,000 a year if he waits until 2016, when he turns 62. Cunningham could garner benefits of about $64,000 with his military service, a sum that includes $36,000 from his eight terms in Congress.
The NTU says there are roughly 20 former members convicted of serious crimes who qualify for pensions.
They include Rep. John Murphy, D-N.Y., convicted in the ABSCAM scandal in 1980, eligible for about $79,000; Rep. Carroll Hubbard, an 18-year Democrat from Kentucky imprisoned for two years on conspiracy and official misconduct charges who could be collecting more than $62,000; and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., who served 15 months in prison after pleading guilty in 1996 to two mail fraud charges but is potentially receiving benefits of $126,000 a year.
Sen. David Durenberger, R-Minn., who reached a plea bargain in 1995 on charges of misuse of public funds, is eligible for $86,000.
The NTU cautioned that individual pension amounts for lawmakers are not a matter of public record and that participation is voluntary. The Kerry amendment also allows convicted members to get refunds for any personal contributions they make into 401 (k)-type plans.
"Given the momentum on the House side, this just might be the year that Congress purges one of its most brazen perks," said Pete Sepp of the NTU, which has led other advocacy groups in urging Congress to deny pensions to members convicted of crimes.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House would take up similar legislation next Friday.
The House last spring approved similar language, as part of a lobbying and ethics package, to cut off the pensions of lawmakers convicted of bribery or acting as a foreign agent. It died when no agreement could be reached with the Senate on the package.
The Senate is expected to finish its work on the ethics and lobbying bill next week, after which the issue would move to the House. If enacted into law, the pension denial provision would go into affect in 2009.
The bill is S. 1
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