Since becoming a guest at Federal Correctional Institution McKean in rural northwestern Pennsylvania on Jan. 25, former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah has been collecting tens of thousands of dollars in pension payments, as reported a year ago by my colleague Jonathan Tamari. But that may be coming to an end.
Fattah resigned from Congress after he was convicted in June 2016 on charges including racketeering, bribery, mail fraud, and money laundering. Sentenced to 10 years in jail for on-the-job offenses, he's still drawing his congressional pension.
How can that be? Congress in 2007 passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act — the Honorables seem to thrill at grandiloquent titles — that prohibits pensions for about three dozen crimes, including Fattah's.
There's a loophole, I am told by Demian Brady, research director of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. The law bans pensions, he said, "but only when a member is 'finally convicted.'"
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management confirmed that Fattah is receiving a federal pension, but would not reveal the amount nor when he began taking it, citing privacy exemptions created by Congress.
It's kind of amazing that the people whom we elected, who work for us, voted to lower a curtain to prevent us from seeing what they are doing with our money.
The pension estimate was determined by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, based on known salaries and lengths of service for members of Congress.
Congressman-turned-convict Fattah will continue receiving the pension until "he has exhausted his appeal rights," an OPM spokesman told me.
Ah. When will that happen? OPM suggested I ask the Department of Justice. So I did, emailing to ask when a convict's rights of appeal end.
Two days later, all I hear is crickets, so I ask another attorney, not government affiliated, who tells me a convict can appeal until the last day of a sentence. In fact, a convict can appeal even after the sentence is served.
By filing appeals, "convicted members of Congress could receive their pension for years, even while in prison," Brady wrote in a recent op-ed.
"We support the removal of government benefits if the crime itself was involving the capacity of the office," I was told by Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer rights advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
Elected officials should lose their pensions upon conviction, Holman said.
Funny he should mention that.
Last month, to close the loophole, U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney (R., N.Y.) introduced legislation with a succinct title — the No Pensions for Corrupt Politicians Act.
Tenney, a freshman rep with "a commitment to civility," told me she has three Republican and two Democratic co-sponsors. The purpose of her legislation is "to prevent members from collecting their taxpayer-funded pensions" if they have broken the law. What a concept.
Was her bill sparked by the pension drawn by the former congressman from Pennsylvania's Second District?
Do pigs snort? I'm Pennsylvania Proud.
If the politician later prevails in appeals, under Tenney's bill the pension would be restored and made retroactive.
That is a better system for us, if not for Fattah.