A Freedom Foundation investigation into teachers collecting full pension benefits despite being guilty of work-related sex offenses that landed them in jail has prompted Sen. Barbara Bailey (R-Oak Harbor) to develop legislation addressing the problem.
Sen. Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island) is also reportedly working on a similar measure.
KING 5 TV last week aired a report on its nightly newscast based on data compiled by Freedom Foundation research analyst Anne Marie Gurney. The report, in which Gurney was featured, revealed at least 22 teachers had received about $5.1 million above their own retirement contributions, interest included, as of the end of 2014.
"We're not talking about the money people had put into their own retirement accounts," Gurney said. "We're talking about former teachers who long ago exceeded their own contributions and, in some cases, have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest and taxpayer subsidies despite the fact that they're either in jail now or served prison time at some point for work-related offenses."
Among the most egregious cases uncovered in the Freedom Foundation investigation:
- Craig Figley is serving 14 and a half years for pleading guilty to two counts of child molestation in the first degree, one count of attempted child molestation in the first degree and one count of possessing depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.
Figley receives $3,111 monthly while still in prison for his crimes.
- Larry Pierson's license was revoked in 2003 for strangling a child for sexual gratification while performing his duties as a teacher. Pierson receives a $3,539 monthly pension and has for about a decade. Research shows he paid $130,627 into that pension.
Adding up 10 years' worth of monthly payments shows that Pierson has more than received his contribution back, and has received over $300,000 from taxpayers.
"No one is saying the state should eliminate these convicts' pensions altogether," said Tom McCabe, the Freedom Foundation's CEO. "But they should be limited to only the money the offenders paid in. Beyond that, the state shouldn't be required to live up to its end of the pension agreement when the teacher clearly didn't live up to his."
One of Bailey's bills would require public employees convicted of a serious crime to forfeit a portion of their pension, but would also protect any dependents of that employee.
Her second bill would require those public employees to use a portion of their pensions to off-set incarceration costs.
"We've engaged with the Attorney General's office and other stakeholder's and I think that we've found a workable solution that responds to the concerns of tax-payers," Bailey said.
If passed, the bills would apply to new hires but could also be applied retroactively to current employees, too.
A number of other states already have pension forfeiture laws on their books to protect the taxpayers in such cases. But in Washington, the teachers' union has thus far been able to prevent such safeguards.
Confronted about the story on the KING 5 report, Washington Education Association spokeswoman Kit Raney described the report as "just noise" and a "non-issue."
"We don't think it's a 'non-issue,' " McCabe said. "We think it's a scandal, one of many caused by the public employees unions and the defined-benefit pensions they've been guaranteed in this state. That's the real disease that needs to be cured; this is only a symptom."