School employees and people who work for our local, state and federal governments are paid to serve the public, and they have a duty to maintain the public’s trust. Unfortunately, too many people break that trust and receive insignificant punishments.
The most notable recent example of this in Michigan comes from the 12 principals from Detroit Public Schools charged last year with crimes for accepting bribes. Collectively, they helped cheat the struggling Detroit district out of $2.7 million in supplies that the schools never received. Most of the principals involved in the scheme took plea deals and received jail sentences ranging from six months to three years.
The federal government has been dealing with similar issues, including employees with the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2014, VA employees were found to be systematically cooking the books to hide the long wait times many veterans were experiencing when they requested a medical appointment. According to the Washington Examiner, just a handful of these employees were fired, and many were allowed to retire with full benefits.
Corruption has plagued schools and communities across our state and our country for far too long, and apathy to white-collar crime by those in prominent positions of responsibility has added to the distrust people have for the government. More needs to be done to increase penalties and end this ongoing culture of corruption.
Under current law, the courts may order the forfeiture of a public pension when a public employee is convicted of a felony resulting from the misuse of public funds, or from the receipt of a bribe as a public employee. In the case of the DPS principals, Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed a suit seeking forfeiture of the portion of the pension paid by the Detroit Public Schools and the state during the time of their crimes. This is something that should be done each and every time a public employee is convicted of such a felony, but the AG’s office has found very few instances where public retirement benefits have been forfeited.
I have been working on a bill that replaces the word “may” in the current law with “shall,” making pension forfeiture for public employees who steal from the public mandatory, not just subject to court discretion. Furthermore, the bill adds language to allow for forfeiture of the employer contribution to a defined contribution plan, or a 401(k)-style plan, which the current law does not address. Mandatory forfeiture of both pensions and employer contributions to defined contribution plans will save trial expense in seeking this penalty and set a firm disincentive to breaching the public trust.
The House of Representatives unanimously approved my legislation, House Bill 4131, last week, and I urge the Senate to take it up for consideration soon.
We must ensure our state will never again be put in a position of financing corruption. Decades of mismanagement and deeply rooted problems do not change easily. Five decades of institutionalized corruption does not redeem itself with the stroke of a pen. Mandatory penalties that everyone can count on is what our white collar convicts need to keep on the straight and narrow.
For small township libraries and mega municipalities alike, financial responsibility and stable administration are primary components of success. Public offices at every level and schools across our state need experienced leadership they can trust. For this reason we must have swift and sure penalties for those who breach the public trust, penalties that cannot be waived by politics.
Published in The Detroit News, April 6, 2017