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Oakland Tribune editorial: Should lose pension, if convicted of job-related felony

Oakland Tribune editorial, Bay Area News Group,
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Contra Costa, CA

2011-03-16_INT_Should lose pension if convicted of job-related felony_01
Contra Costa Narcotics Enforcement Team commander Norman Wielsch, left, and his attorney Michael Cardoza exit the A.F. Bray Courthouse after a scheduled appearance in Martinez, Calif., on Wednesday, March 2, 2011. Wielsch is being charged with conspiring to sell drugs stolen from evidence lockers and drug task force seizures. Doug Duran/Staff

AS NORMAN Wielsch, the former head of the Contra Costa Narcotics Task Force, awaits his trial on charges that he sold drugs stolen from a county evidence room, he will have to worry about spending more than 25 years in prison if he is convicted.

But while he's behind bars, he will still enjoy a public-employee pension of roughly $71,000 a year, which will increase with inflation for the rest of his life.

That's just wrong. As the Little Hoover Commission said last month in its comprehensive review of California public-employee pensions, it's time to impose pension penalties on workers who seriously abuse their public jobs for personal gain.

The Wielsch case demonstrates why. A cop for a little more than 24 years, working for the city of Antioch and for the state as the head of the drug task force, Wielsch qualifies for the most generous public-employee pension formula in the state.

Police and firefighters across California typically can retire as early as age 50 and receive pensions equal to 3 percent of their final salary for every year on the job. Thus, Wielsch, who will turn 50 this month, can collect about 73 percent of his final salary, which was $98,000 a year.

Ironically, his alleged accomplice reportedly told a confidential informant in the case that Wielsch was looking to make extra money before his retirement. If that is true, the greed is just amazing. The fat pension wasn't enough, nor was retirement at age 50. He allegedly tried to pad his income by selling the very drugs he was supposed to be keeping off the streets.

Perhaps if employees know they risk their pension, they might think twice about illegal actions. Perhaps not. What's clear is that, if convicted, Wielsch shouldn't be allowed to keep the pension, which was largely funded with taxpayer money.

California law calls for the expulsion of corrupt judges and legislators from the California Public Employees' Retirement System. But attempts to expand the penalties to other government workers have been blocked by public-employee unions. A narrow measure passed in 2005 cancels pension benefits of elected officials convicted of felony bribery, embezzlement of public money, extortion or theft of public money, perjury or conspiracy to commit those crimes.

But, as the commission points out, even that list of crimes wasn't enough to block Orange County Coroner-Sheriff Mike Carona, now serving a 51/2-year federal prison sentence for witness tampering, from collecting a $217,000 annual pension from the Orange County Employees' Retirement System.

As the Carona and Wielsch cases show, public employees, especially those in law enforcement jobs, must be punished if they are convicted of felonies involving their public duties.

Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Thousand Oaks, has proposed legislation, Senate Bill 115, to do just that. Lawmakers should pass it now.

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