The recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Ralph J. Maher v. Retirement Board of Quincy , SJC-10182 (Nov. 6, 2008), serves as a stark cautionary tale to public employees, and as a reminder that courts take a hard line against misconduct that involves an abuse of authority or integrity. Public employees breaking the law must be aware that they risk not only criminal charges, but loss of their pensions as well.
General Laws chapter 32, §15 identifies a number of pension-related penalties awaiting public employees who engage in certain misconduct. Public employees who misappropriate funds or property can lose their retirement allowance up to the cost of their misappropriation and prosecution. G.L. c. 32, §15(1). Public employees convicted of misuse of government funds or property, or crimes related to improper police or licensing duties, lose their retirement allowance as well as their contributions to the system. G.L. c.32, §15(3) & (3A). Public employees who are convicted of crimes that relate to their job lose their pension, but not their contributions to the retirement system, under state law. G.L. c.32, §15(4).
The case of Maher dealt with the last penalty. Here, Quincy’s former chief plumbing and gas inspector broke into the city’s personnel office in order to remove critical portions of his personnel file. He sought to improve his chances of being re-appointed to his position, which paid $125,000 a year. Instead, he was indicted on charges of breaking and entering; stealing in a building; and wanton destruction of property. He ultimately pleaded guilty, served six months of unsupervised probation, and paid a total of $900 in fines and restitution.
After he officially retired, the Quincy Retirement Board instituted proceedings to forfeit the inspector’s pension, under G.L. c.32, §15(4). The Board ultimately voted to forfeit the pension, a loss of approximately $576,000.
The SJC ruled that the loss of the pension did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on “excessive fines.” The Eighth Amendment states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The Court had little difficulty concluding that forfeiture of a $576,000 pension was not a grossly disproportionate fine for illegal efforts to retain a $125,000 a year job, especially considering the damage inflicted to the public trust by the employee’s criminal conduct.
Interestingly, the SJC did not discuss whether the crimes actually related to his position for purposes of G.L. c.32, §15(4), given that his crimes involved property, as opposed, arguably, to his official job duties.
Public employees who even daydream about engaging in misconduct may want to think twice about whether actions are worth risking losing their job, health insurance, freedom, and pension.