State lawmakers are struggling to find a way to appropriately punish public officials who commit crimes related to their offices. It is not as easy as it sounds. An example is House Bill 224 by Rep. Kevin Pearson, R- Slidell, which the House rejected by a vote of 42-56 on April 19. Pearson's bill would have suspended retirement benefits to public officials and public employees while they are incarcerated if they spend more than 30 days in jail. Spouses and children of the jailed officials could still have collected the benefits.
That sounds simple enough, but opponents argued that the bill did not take into account wide disparities in sentencing and should have been pegged to felony convictions instead. Rep. Jon Bel Edwards, D-Amite, noted that a public employee could be sentenced to six months in jail for a misdemeanor offense while an elected official could be given a suspended jail term or probation for a felony conviction — depending on the judge. Rep. Jack Montoucet, D-Scott and a retired firefighter, said the bill had too many "gray areas" for public employees and noted, "One of the only benefits they get compared to the private sector is a good retirement program."
The difficulty lawmakers face in trying to come down forcefully — yet appropriately — against corruption is borne out in disparate press treatments of Pearson's bill. The Shreveport Times headlined after defeat of the bill, "Louisiana House blows an easy one," while the Lake Charles American Press declared, "Retirement penalties easier said than done."
Pearson says he simply wants to prevent criminals from collecting retirement benefits when they used their positions to profit illegally. He adds that he is open to other ways to address the problem. The Louisiana Sheriff's Association, which fought Pearson's bill, instead supports Senate Bill 13 by Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City. Gautreaux's bill provides that a retirement benefit of an elected official may be garnished or seized to pay fines or restitution imposed as a penalty for conviction of a felony associated with the office. The sheriffs say Gautreaux's bill is more focused than Pearson's — and it allows the victims of crooked pols to be made whole. — Clancy DuBos