Taxpayers are rightfully outraged when public officials are caught in criminal acts while on the job. But one potential tool to hold those officials accountable — the forfeiture of pension benefits — often can’t be employed because there is no way to implement it fairly.
Two North Shore cases — one from more than a decade ago, one more recent — highlight how the state’s current “all-or-nothing” approach to eliminating pension benefits is actually benefitting those convicted of crimes.
While working as watch commander on Christmas night in 2004, Peabody police Lt. Edward Bettencourt used the birth dates and Social Security numbers of his fellow officers to create online accounts in the civil service computer system, which then allowed him to peek at their test scores.
It was a stunning betrayal of the trust put in him by the public and his fellow officers, and in 2008 Bettencourt was convicted of 26 counts of improper use of a computer.
The 26-year veteran lost his job, but not is pension. In 2016, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled Bettencourt couldn’t be forced to give up his entire pension — valued between $630,000 and $800,000 — for what was a series of misdemeanors. In making its ruling the court pointed to the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which bans the imposition of “excessive fines.”
And because Massachusetts state law doesn’t account for lesser fines in cases like Bettencourt’s, the Peabody officer got to keep his entire pension, if not his reputation.
In its ruling the court urged the Legislature to update the law so future pension boards wouldn’t face an “all or nothing” choice when a public employee is convicted of a crime related to his employment.
Lawmakers have yet to act, and now the issue is back in the courts. Last week, former Saugus and Nahant Town Manager Andrew Bisigani went before an Appeals Court to argue he should keep his $1.3 million to $1.5 million pension even after pleading guilty to multiple counts of public procurement fraud and obstruction of justice.
Bisigani’s lawyer, former Supreme Court justice Robert Cordy, argued that taking his client’s entire pension would amount to at least 25 times the maximum fine he could have faced. That makes it a clear violation of the Eighth Amendment, he said.
“It’s not your fault,” Cordy said. “It’s the Legislature’s fault.”
He’s right. Several bills that would allow for partial forfeiture of pension benefits have stalled in the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee. It’s time for them to move forward, and develop a system where the punishment fits the crime.