San Diego Union Tribune

December 15, 2005

Cunningham case brings new look at pensions

By Toby Eckert and Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – Spurred by the fact that former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham will get a taxpayer-funded pension despite taking $2.4 million in bribes, several Republican lawmakers yesterday said they would introduce legislation to make sure that federal employees convicted of white-collar crimes cannot collect in the future.

The bill would add bribery and other breaches of "public trust" to the list of crimes that cost members of Congress and other government employees their pensions. Current law denies federal benefits only for convictions for treason and other national security violations.

"The American people expect their federal employees, including members of Congress, to be held to a higher ethical standard," said Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., author of the proposed legislation. "Without the trust of the people and accountability for actions, the government cannot work."

Cunningham, a Republican from Rancho Santa Fe, resigned this month after admitting he took bribes from defense contractors in return for helping them get government contracts. His congressional pension would be about $40,000 a year. Cunningham already is drawing military retirement pay for 21 years of Navy service.

Several Republican co-sponsors appeared at a Capitol Hill news conference, where Terry unveiled the legislation, underlining GOP concerns about the potential toll that scandals involving Cunningham and several other Republican lawmakers could take in next year's congressional elections.

While acknowledging that the criminal investigations or charges affecting several senior GOP lawmakers impact mainly the majority party, Terry said, "the issue for those of us in the (GOP) caucus is to do what's right," not to worry about any individual.

The legislation Terry introduced would not affect Cunningham, because criminal punishments cannot be made retroactive.

"But we can make sure that the next one who abuses the trust of his office does not benefit," Terry said.

One watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, applauded the proposed legislation.

"I haven't seen the exact language of it, but it sounds great. It's about time some member of Congress called for this," said Melanie Sloan, the group's executive director.

This month, the group asked House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-San Dimas, to introduce legislation that would revoke the pensions of congressional members convicted of felonies.

Sloan said Dreier did not respond.

Similar debate has been kindled in the past when lawmakers have been convicted of crimes. But efforts to change the pension law have failed, most recently in 2002 after former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, was convicted of fraud and bribery.

Sloan speculated that Terry's bill might gain more traction because of the number of investigations that have hit Capitol Hill this year, involving, among others, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio.

"Normally I would give it no chance. But I think members of Congress right now have the feeling that they need to put a little more heft behind their words that they care about ethics," Sloan said.

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