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Pay as they go

Law that lets retired lawmakers boost their pensions sparks outrage

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / January 11, 2009
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It might have seemed the height of audacity when J. James Marzilli Jr., charged with attempting to grope a woman, asked the state to nearly double his pension, just 11 days after he resigned from the state Senate in disgrace.

In fact, he was following a well-trod Beacon Hill tradition of cashing in on a law that allows veteran state legislators who retire or fail to win reelection to receive staggering pension increases worth thousands of dollars a year.

A Globe review shows that 14 former legislators are currently drawing significantly increased pensions under the law, including several who left amid their own ethical and criminal troubles.

The law, originally created to compensate civil servants who lost jobs when new administrations took over, was expanded by the Legislature 59 years ago to provide the same benefits to lawmakers - even though their employment depends on voters, not the political whims that can threaten civil servants. Now, as the state faces a deep financial crisis and is taking painful steps including layoffs, the generous benefit for departing legislators is sparking outrage.

"It's ridiculous," said L. Scott Harshbarger, the former attorney general of Massachusetts and onetime president of Common Cause, a government watchdog group. "How in the world is it appropriate, necessary, or consistent with any reasonable public policy that if you chose not to run for office or are defeated in running for office that you get an enhanced pension? It just seems to me totally unreasonable, and for elected officials this does not enhance their image."

Legislators, however, have shown little interest in scaling back what one pension official called a "special quirk" in the system.

Vincent J. Piro, a former state representative from Somerville who lost his seat after he was charged with taking a $5,000 bribe, used the law to boost his pension from about $6,750 - not including annual cost-of-living adjustments - to $18,872.

Richard Voke, a former House majority leader from Chelsea who retired in 1998 after losing a bitter fight for the speakership to Thomas M. Finneran in 1996, upped his pension from about $14,779 to $28,193.

Francis G. Mara, a former state representative from Brockton who retired in 1996 after he was fined for taking gifts from insurance lobbyists, increased his pension from about $3,783 to $18,921.

"It's not doing anything wrong," said Mara, 58, who is now a State House lobbyist for Arbella Insurance and Techlink Entertainment, a company that makes technology for video lottery terminals, slot machines, and other gambling systems. He said that when he was retiring, another senator told him about the law and suggested he take advantage of it.

"That was a legal mechanism," he said.

Some may question the practice, he said, but "you can have these debates over many things in society."

Indeed, efforts to repeal special pension benefits have been traditionally met with fierce resistance on Beacon Hill, said state Representative Harriett L. Stanley, a West Newbury Democrat and longtime critic of such benefits.

"We're talking about the third rail here," she said. "It's going to be absolutely impossible to make meaningful reform unless we acknowledge the problem, and that will be one tough battle."

The law, as it was amended in 1950, allows any elected official under age 55 "who has completed twenty or more years of creditable service and who fails of nomination or reelection" to apply for a pension increase.

Using a formula based on the lawmaker's age, years of service, and annuity, the law can boost a pension by as much 400 percent. Pension officials say the requests are almost always granted unless the lawmaker was convicted of a crime. No wonder, some say, that lawmakers created the statute.

"If you're going to stick a little juicy one in there for yourself, why not put one in there if you can't get reelected?" said Nicholas Poser, a Boston pension lawyer. "The 'failed of nomination' stuff is, to my mind, clearly directed at failed politicians."

Over the years, Democrats and Republicans have taken advantage of the perk.

"They're going to say, 'Well, the statute provides me access to this benefit, and why would I not take it?"' said Joseph E. Connarton, executive director of the state Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission.

Alfred E. Saggese Jr., a Winthrop Democrat, got his pension boosted to $18,872, after retiring from the House in 1991, a year after he missed more roll call votes than any other member, except for one who was in poor health.

Piro - who was charged in 1984 with taking a $5,000 bribe, saying he had to "grease a few guys," for a liquor license - was eventually acquitted, and has received an increased pension since 1991.

Recent recipients include Christopher J. Hodgkins, a former Democratic representative from Lee, who retired in 2003 and upped his pension from about $4,889 to $22,253, and John Businger, a former Democratic representative from Brookline who was ousted from office in 1998 and increased his pension from about $15,083 to $23,301.

Marzilli's request, to bump his pension from $14,000 to $27,000, is pending before the State Retirement Board, which says it will not rule on the increase until his criminal case is resolved.

Faced with the prospect of deep budget cuts, some say the appetite for change is growing on Beacon Hill.

The Legislature recently created a 15-member commission to look at ways to overhaul the pension system.

It was supposed to meet in September, but its members have yet to be appointed. Still, if the panel forms, and lawmakers look for changes, some say the perk for departing legislators could be targeted.

"These kinds of things become symbols that reinforce people's cynicism," Harshbarger said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

'It's ridiculous. . . . for elected officials this does not enhance their image.'

Former Massachusetts attorney general

POLITICAL PRICE?

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