Civic

Bill to limit pensions for officials convicted of crimes moves forward

Raleigh – Lawmakers moved to restrict pensions for public officials who commit crimes while performing their official duties.

Senate Bill 719 passed unanimously from the House Pensions and Retirement Committee on Wednesday and is now in the House Rules Committee. It targets elected government officials convicted of a felony offense connected with their service. Convicted officials could collect only the amount of money they contributed to the retirement system plus interest. Nor could they count unused sick leave accumulated after July 2007 toward their retirement benefits. 

The bill won’t block former Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick from drawing a pension even though she pleaded guilty to embezzling almost $1 million from her office. But policymakers hope it will prevent other convicted officials from following Riddick’s example.

A Wake County Register of Deeds office investigation found $2.3 million disappeared from the office from 2013 to 2017. Riddick pleaded guilty to six felony counts of embezzlement after prosecutors charged her with taking $926,615 from the office. She resigned and entered early retirement.

Director of the state Retirement Systems Division Steven Toole tried to terminate Riddick’s state pension in 2018 and claw back $126,290 she had reaped in the 20 months since her resignation. Riddick receives $89,000 a year in state pension money.

But Riddick sued to keep her pension, saying she qualified for the money despite her felony convictions. Her lawsuit argued her unused sick leave made her eligible for early retirement. The lawsuit is pending.

Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, told Carolina Journal the bill was “forward-looking” instead of retroactive.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell said Riddick’s lawsuit proved the need to better secure taxpayer money. He hopes S.B. 719 will prevent other corrupt officials from following Riddick’s example.

“We shouldn’t be rewarding people with fat pensions who are embezzlers of the public trust,” Folwell told CJ. “There’s nothing that irritates taxpayers more than having somebody committing a crime in public office, embezzling money from them, and all the while earning a fat pension.”

Riddick is serving five to seven years in prison with a work release after she agreed in a plea deal to repay $926,000 to the state. In late May her husband, Raleigh lawyer Matthew Eisley, told The News & Observer Riddick was quarantined with COVID-19 at the NC Correctional Institution for Women.

Riddick took an annual salary of $143,267 by the time she resigned. She had more than two decades of service time in the pension system. The bill would not limit pensions of appointed officials like Wanda Greene, former Buncombe County Manager, who convicted of fraud and receiving bribes and kickbacks. 

Editor’s note: Havlak is a reporter for Carolina Journal News Service.