Several watchdog groups want Congress to rescind the pensions of lawmakers who are convicted of a felony.
After the guilty plea by Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) last week to charges of tax evasion and conspiracy, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) Dec. 2 urged Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) to introduce legislation that would revoke the pensions of members who break major laws.
“Members of both parties need to start acting to restore integrity to the House of Representatives,” said Melanie Sloan, CREW executive director. “This legislation would be a step in the right direction.”
A Rules Committee spokesman did not return calls for comment.
According to Pete Sepp, vice president of communications for the National Taxpayers Union (NTU), Cunningham’s civilian pension amounts to $36,000 for the first full year and he would receive that same amount the next year plus a cost-of-living increase.
The figures do not include his military pension, which could give Cunningham a total of $64,000 in his first full year of retirement.
Sepp said the NTU had long been in favor of legislation that would deny legislators convicted of felonies their pensions.
“It is time to have a serious debate that transcends the latest problem. Otherwise, this will just be a publicity stunt instead of a serious reform that would protect the taxpayer,” he said.
Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy and communications for Taxpayers for Common Sense, said that there are few ways to control behavior in Congress.
“We have a lot of carrots and not a lot of sticks,” he said. Ashdown said significant monetary consequences are one of the only ways that inappropriate behavior could be curbed.
In 2002, former Ohio Rep. James Traficant (D) was convicted on 10 counts of racketeering, fraud and bribery. He was expelled from the House and is now serving an eight-year prison sentence. That episode led Reps. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) to introduce a bill that would have stripped members expelled from the House of their pensions.
Dan McFaul, a spokesman for Miller, said that while the bill did not make it out of committee last Congress it is still something Miller intends to push eventually.
“He is not interested in [reintroducing the bill] as a reaction [to Cunningham],” McFaul said.
In a Nov. 30 letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for the creation of a bipartisan House committee to investigate Cunningham’s handling of classified information in his role in defense appropriations and on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) requested an investigation independently into whether any misconduct occurred.
The committee “is going to conduct a review of his actions within the committee,” panel spokesman Jamal Ware said.
He added that while there have been no allegations of wrongdoing against Cunningham involving his role on the committee and that the scope of the investigation is still being determined, Hoekstra wants to be certain that nothing unseemly transpired.
Ware declined to speculate on what repercussions might occur if Cunningham engaged in any misconduct.
A spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee did not return a call for comment.
According to United States Code Sections 8311 and 8312, federal employees, including members of Congress, who intentionally leak classified information, participate in “gathering, transmitting or losing defense information” or engage in a number of seditious activities forfeit their rights to all retirement privileges and annuities.
Cunningham announced Nov. 28 that he would resign from the House after he pleaded guilty in a California district court to charges of tax evasion and conspiracy. He will be sentenced Feb. 27 and could serve up to five years in prison on each of the two counts. In entering a guilty plea, he admitted taking $2.4 million in bribes.
Cunningham’s congressional office will continue to function under the supervision of the clerk of the House until a new member has been elected for California’s 50th District.
The eight-term congressman’s official resignation will be made public today, according to Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Hastert.