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Two systems, one state: Chicago teachers donít lose pension over job-related felony

By Scott Reeder, sreeder@qconline.com

SPRINGFIELD -- Monticello High School teacher Larry Albaugh stared into a webcam sitting atop a classroom computer, dropped his pants and fondled himself.

He thought his 2004 lewd performance was being viewed over the Internet by a 15-year-old girl, but it was actually an undercover police officer, a Macon County search warrant affidavit said.

In January 2005, Mr. Albaugh was arrested and he later pleaded guilty to indecent solicitation of a child, which is a felony.

He quit his job, his teaching certificate was revoked and he is a registered sex offender.

Whether he will forfeit all of his pension benefits accrued over 29 years of teaching remains to be seen.

A 1955 law designed to punish corrupt police officers, deviant teachers and politicians on the take mandates that state or local government employees who are convicted of job-related felonies must forfeit their pensions.

Ironically, Mr. Albaugh's pension woes may have as much to do with where in Illinois he chose to teach than his own conduct.

Because of an anomaly in the law, if Mr. Albaugh had spent his 29 years teaching with Chicago Public Schools rather than in rural Monticello, there is no question that he would be able to keep his pension.

An in-depth analysis of how felony pension forfeiture cases are enforced in Illinois shows enormous disparities between how the state's two teacher pension systems deal with felons within their ranks.

The Chicago Teacher Pension Fund, CTPF, serves those who have worked for Chicago Public Schools. The Teachers' Retirement System of Illinois serves those who have worked for the state's other 875 school districts.

Since 1991, 84 suburban and downstate educators have forfeited their pension benefits after being convicted of job-related felonies, according to TRS records obtained by Small Newspaper Group.

During the same period, no Chicago Public School teachers forfeited their pensions said Kevin Huber, executive director of CTPF. In fact, it is believed that not one pension has been forfeited in the 112-year history of the pension fund.

It is not as though Chicago educators are better behaved than their suburban or downstate colleagues.

For example:

-- In 1987, James Moffat, former principal of Chicago's Kelvyn Park High School, was convicted of 16 counts of official misconduct and eight counts of taking indecent liberties with a child. His indictments indicate he sexually abused four boys and one girl in his school office. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and released after six years, for good behavior. Moffat began collecting his now $60,000-a-year pension in 1989, Huber said. The pension payments have continued uninterrupted even as he was incarcerated in a state prison in Galesburg.

-- In 1996, Chicago high school principal Eddie Washington was fired after an audit of school funds. According to Maribeth Vander Weele, the CPS inspector general at the time, student funds were spent on a $270 leather jacket, a $348 cellular phone bill, and a $5,617 staff appreciation lunch and gifts to staff. The audit alleged that Class of 1994 funds were used for a trip for 25 people to a dog track in Kenosha, Wis.; that girls' basketball money paid off bar tabs; and that undisclosed sums were deposited into private checking accounts. Washington was convicted of eight felonies including theft, official misconduct and forgery. In 2006, he began collecting $19,291 annually in pension benefits.

-- Former principal Robert Malek confessed in 2005 to stealing $57,000 from Locke Elementary School in Chicago. According to court records, he pleaded guilty to second-degree felony theft and received a deferred sentence. He is too young to collect a pension, but no action has been taken to revoke his pension benefits, Huber said.

If these men had been employed by any other school district in the state, their felonies almost certainly would have resulted in the complete loss of pension benefits.

But a quirk in Illinois law has contributed to the difference in how the pension systems deal with felonies, said Kevin Huber, executive director of CTPF.

Chicago Public School teachers hired before 1988 cannot lose their pensions, no matter what crime they commit on the job. But employees of all the other 875 school districts in the state are subject to felony forfeiture as long as they were hired after 1955.

Why in the 1950s the Illinois legislature chose not to make the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, or CTPF, subject to the same felony forfeiture rules as the pension system serving other local and state government workers is a bit of a mystery. Chicago educators did not become subject to the same law until 1988, when the legislature chose to include them.

"I've worked with pension plans all over the nation and these type disparities almost always have to do with some group having more lobbying clout than another," said Florida lawyer Robert Klausner, a national authority on public pension plans.

Just how much money this quirk in the law has cost CTPF is a bit of an open question because Chicago Public Schools has not kept track of all of its teachers who have committed job-related felonies, said CPS spokesman Michael Vaughn.

But in the state's other teacher pension system, forfeitures have resulted in $2 million in savings since 1991 for the taxpayers and educators who support the pension system, said Eva Goltermann, a representative of the Illinois Teacher's Retirement System.

"This really isn't about trying to save money for the pension system," said Jon Bauman, executive director of the Teacher Retirement System of Illinois. "We want to see that the law is enforced fairly and that people are held accountable for their crimes."

Corruption watchdog groups contend the specter of losing a pension dissuades some government workers from committing illegal acts. Illinois is one of at least 35 states with a pension forfeiture provision on the books, Mr. Klausner said.

"Felony forfeiture is a good public policy. The intent is to deter politicians as well as those with lower level jobs from committing felonies," said Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

"Most recently, we saw (former Gov.) George Ryan lose his pension because of the crimes he committed in office. If anything, it should be advertised more among public employees, that if you commit a felony on the job, you lose your pension. That should be a powerful deterrent."

There are no requirements that school districts or prosecutors inform the pension system of job-related convictions. So, TRS has someone read newspapers from across the state looking for stories on teachers convicted of crimes, Ms. Goltermann said.

Mr. Huber said he was unaware that former principal Robert Malek had pleaded guilty to stealing $57,000 from his school until it was pointed out to him by a reporter on Nov. 11.

Mr. Bauman said he would like to see legislation to require state's attorneys or school districts to inform the pension funds when a school employee commits a job-related felony.

"I think we have done a good job of acting on these cases but with so many school districts out there, there is always a possibility we've missed someone who committed a felony on the job," he said.