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Editorial: N.M. should quit paying pensions for elected felons

For more than a decade, legislators have considered, and defeated, bills that would prevent public officials convicted of felonies from receiving their overly generous state pensions.

The current case in point is former state Sen. Phil Griego, who last week was convicted of fraud, bribery and state ethics law violations for accepting a $50,000 commission on the sale of a historic state building he successfully ushered through the legislative approval process. State Attorney General Hector Balderas has asked a district judge to “enhance” Griego’s as-yet-undetermined sentence by requiring forfeiture of his legislative pension and other payments he can lawfully receive as a senator after the criminal acts were committed.

Under current law, a judge can fine convicted public officials up to the value of their salaries and “fringe benefits,” though legislators are technically not salaried (they receive a $164 per diem and mileage reimbursement) and “fringe benefits” are undefined. Various attempts to clarify the law to include pensions as a “fringe benefit” have been unsuccessful, but Rep. Matthew McQueen, a Galisteo Democrat, who has sponsored several such bills over the years, says he’ll try again during the 30-day session that starts in January.

We hope he’s successful because elected officials who have abused the public trust should not benefit financially for their malfeasance. Regrettably, recent history alone is replete with such abuse of the public trust:

⋄  Griego stands to receive a state pension of about $1,350 per month, or slightly more than $16,200 annually.

⋄  Former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, who pleaded guilty in 2015 to misusing campaign contributions to fuel a gambling habit, receives a state pension of about $4,800 per month, or slightly more than $58,000 per year.

⋄  Former state Senate leader Manny Aragon, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to conspiracy and mail fraud in connection with a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme related to the construction of the Metropolitan Courthouse Downtown, receives a state pension of $2,321 per month, or slightly less than $28,000 per year.

⋄  Former state treasurer Michael Montoya, convicted in 2007 of taking kickbacks from investment advisers who helped arrange bids on state investments, receives a state pension of $4,077 per month, or slightly less than $49,000 per year.

⋄  Montoya’s successor, former state auditor and state treasurer Robert Vigil, was convicted in 2007 of attempted extortion for his role in steering state investments to select investment advisers who provide kickbacks. He receives a state pension of about $4,500 per month, or about $55,000 per year.

For every $1 lawmakers kick in to their pension, the public kicks in $43. Adding public insult to public injury, these pensioners are also eligible for periodic cost-of-living increases. How can a law-abiding public employee square all this with the perennial news pension funds are struggling to reach solvency? In these five instances alone, taxpayers are paying out more than $200,000 a year to convicted felons they once elected to serve their interests.

If you think that’s as outrageous as we do, contact the governor and your state legislators before the January special session and tell them so.

As cash-strapped as New Mexico is, this is a huge waste of resources.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.