Armed with this letter from Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Chris Caruso, D-Bridgeport, and Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, were gearing up Tuesday for a battle over legislation establishing a process to retroactively revoke or reduce pensions of corrupt state officials.
At an afternoon press conference, Caruso admitted there’s a “battle brewing over the retroactivity of the bill.”
Gov. M. Jodi Rell said in a press release Tuesday that she supports pension revocation moving forward, but does not support looking back.
The Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans, and House Republicans are all in favor of a nine-point ethics package, which includes future pension revocation, which means Caruso and Urban will have an uphill battle Thursday when the House Democrats caucus on the bill.
Rell’s spokesman Rich Harris said Tuesday in a phone interview that the governor thinks the retroactivity clause is not constitutional and will result in a lengthy court battle. Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, agrees. “I have expressed opposition to reaching back into the past and revoking a pension because many do not believe that would survive a court challenge,” he said.
However, Blumenthal disagrees.
Blumenthal wrote in an April 1 letter to Caruso and Urban, that the state of New Jersey has explicitly upheld retroactive pension revocation. He said the constitutional provisions of ex post facto laws or double jeopardy only apply to criminal sanctions. Pension revocation lawsuits would be filed in civil court, he said Tuesday at the press conference.
“Our Courts have never before addressed the constitutional issues raised by such a retroactive pension revocation or reduction measure. I cannot predict with certainty how a court would rule, but there are cogent and compelling arguments to support the pension revocation law,” Blumenthal wrote. He said if there ended up being a court challenge he would vigorously defend the provision in court.
Why 10, why not 20?
Caruso said he thinks 10 years is a “reasonable” time period, in which to gather information and make a case to revoke a corrupt public official’s pension. In the end, “there is no magic number,” and “this doesn’t just apply to John Rowland,” he said. Caruso pointed out that former Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim and former state Treasurer Paul Sylvester also fall into the 10-year time period.
In order to revoke or reduce an individuals pension, Blumenthal would have to file a civil lawsuit against the person. The proposed legislation considers the damages the official caused the state when they violated the public trust and whether revoking a pension would injure their family members who may rely on it as a portion of their income. Blumenthal said the court would weigh all those factors before making a decision.
“This is something the public wants,” Caruso said. He said it’s not about any individuals.
Blumenthal’s office would be in charge of deciding whose pension to pursue.
“Prison is the ultimate deterrent. Money is no substitute for time behind bars,” Blumenthal said. But he said pension revocation will “signal to the public we are serious about corruption.”