By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — If the jury in former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s federal corruption trial finds him guilty, he’ll probably lose his cushy retirement benefits thanks to a law that he helped enact.
In March 2011, McDonnell, who championed himself as a reformer of the state’s underfunded pension system, signed a law denying retirement benefits to public employees convicted of on-the-job felonies.
A conviction on almost any one of the 14 criminal counts he and his wife are facing for their gift-filled relationship with wealthy businessman Jonnie Williams will wipe out potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded pension benefits over the course of his lifetime — up to about $60,000 a year, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Jeff Schapiro first suggested. That doesn’t even include lifelong health insurance and other benefits.
The law introduced by Republican Delegate Chris Jones, one of the governor’s allies in the General Assembly, says “no person shall be entitled to any benefits of this title as provided in this section if he is convicted of a felony and the person’s employer determines that the felony arise from misconduct occurring on or after July 1, 2011, in any position in which the person was a member covered for retirement purposes under any retirement system administered by the (Virginia Retirement System) board.”
There could be some gray area in the timeline, as the interactions the prosecution has described in the case so far have taken place both before and after July 1, 2011. And since McDonnell hadn’t reached age 65 or 30 years of service before ending his public service, he would likely be eligible for reduced benefits instead of full benefits, according to Virginia Retirement System rules.
VRS calculates annual retirement payout by multiplying 1.7 percent by years of service by the top 36 months of pay. McDonnell was one of the best-paid governors in the nation with a salary of $175,000.
Since it’s likely McDonnell contributed some of his salary towards his own retirement, a judge would determine whether he’d get any of that money returned.
“I cannot verify the accuracy of the salary or retirement benefit amount,” said Jeanne Chenault, public relations director for VRS. “Members, including the governor, may have served in positions where they and the employer may have made contributions. … The employer’s determination may be appealed to a circuit court and the judge would have the power to reverse the employer’s determination or to revise the penalty as he saw fit,” said Jeanne Chenault, public relations director for VRS. “In other words, a judge would have the authority to order benefits to be fully or partially restored.”
McDonnell worked as an elected state official for more than two decades. Before serving as governor from January 2010 to January of this year, McDonnell served as attorney general for four years, from 2006 to 2009. Before then, he was a state delegate from 1992 to 2006. So, he’s racked up a lot of retirement benefits as a vested member of VRS.
McDonnell cut his own salary for a few months at the beginning of his term when the economic outlook appeared grim. But when he managed to claim a surplus — partly by taking $600 million from the Virginia Retirement System — he reinstated his original salary.
— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached at [email protected].