Some banned Pennsylvania educators still collecting pensions
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Henry South served as technology director for McKeesport Area School District, until investigators found child porn on his personal and district-issued computers.
Jarold Winkleblech directed the East Allegheny High School band, until he professed his love to a 15-year-old student, whom he hugged and kissed in his music classroom on a daily basis, the student testified in court.
Nicholas Salvo worked with his wife at Mt. Lebanon High School, where he coached tennis, until he sent a sexually explicit video to an undercover agent posing as a 14-year-old online.
All three men receive public pension benefits.
They are among more than 200 former Pennsylvania public school employees who receive pension benefits -- more than $300,000 each month combined -- despite certification sanctions following misconduct allegations, and in some cases, felony convictions.
At least 204 people — including seven former Allegheny County school employees — remain on the Public School Employee Retirement System’s payroll after their certification was surrendered or revoked, according to an analysis by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The severity of the misconduct runs the gamut, from providing students with improper help on state standardized tests to sex crimes and murder convictions.
The state’s pension forfeiture law covers only certain crimes and must relate to the educator’s job duties to forfeit a pension. It also limits forfeiture to PSERS members who commit crimes against students.
That means former educators barred from working in schools keep their pension if their misconduct falls outside the crimes specified in the law or if it happened outside the scope of their job.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education requires certification for all employees who have “responsibility for direct interaction” with students during the school day. Some jobs do not require certification, such as food service directors and athletic directors.
A state auditor general report last year criticized what it described as shortcomings in the pension forfeiture law. Sex crimes, for example, apply only to student victims, and must occur within the course of the school employee’s job. Auditors found that PSERS lacked detailed procedures for tracking disciplinary cases, and the agency failed to use police records to identify potential forfeitures cases.
“As a result, some pension forfeiture cases might never be detected,” auditors wrote in the report.
State lawmakers have proposed multiple bills that would strengthen pension forfeiture rules. Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin County, sponsored a bill that would require pension forfeiture for any public employee or public official who is convicted, pleads guilty, or pleads no-contest to any job-related felony. It would also require courts to notify state pension systems of all forfeiture cases.
The bill, which passed the Senate 50-0 in January, is awaiting consideration in the House judiciary committee.
Sen. John Blake, minority chair of the Senate finance committee and PSERS board of trustees member, said pension forfeiture reform has gained momentum because of increased voter interest in accountability issues, such as campaign finance and gerrymandering. He said the forfeiture rule changes are long overdue.
“This is just another one of those accountability issues where the public’s ire goes up when we don’t do our job well, to their credit,” said Blake, D-Luzerne. “It’s a consensus that’s not partisan, that makes for better public policy decisions and better government.”
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who has previously called for reforms, declined to weigh in on specific pending legislation, but said he backs any move that would beef up pension forfeiture rules.
“If it moves things in the right direction, then I support it,” he said. “The public pension forfeiture law needs to be strengthened.”
Ronald Goldberg, 70, is the highest paid pensioner among former educators in Pennsylvania stripped of their state certification. The former Wissahickon Middle School teacher pleaded guilty to misdemeanor endangering the welfare of children after inappropriate contact with two female students.
Goldberg’s maximum single-life annuity pays $7,876 per month, records show. He could not be reached for comment Friday.
The median monthly of the disqualified former educators is $1,067, according to the Post-Gazette’s analysis.
Eric Epstein, co-founder of the Harrisburg-based reform group Rock the Capitol, said he believes the pension amount is less important than the principle of disgraced former educators staying on a public retirement system payroll.
“It doesn’t matter to me if he’s getting $5 a month or $500,” he said. “We’re supporting somebody who was engaged in deviant behaviors.”
Epstein said the law should consider a variety of factors regarding pension forfeiture, including “the vileness of the act” and whether taxpayers might ultimately pay more supporting the former educators if they becomes “wards of the state” without a pension.
His group supports the bill by DiSanto, whose office did not respond to a request for comment.
The state’s pension forfeiture rules have been in the spotlight in recent years after several high-profile cases. Former Democratic state Sen. Robert Mellow narrowly won an appeal in December to restore his $20,509-a-month pension after serving prison time on federal corruption charges. In 2015, the Commonwealth Court reinstated former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s pension because his sex crimes against children happened after he was employed by the university.
Epstein said the fact that powerful people can benefit from the loopholes has disincentivized change.
“The people who make the law benefit from the loopholes,” he said. “The reason it isn’t more far reaching and more aggressive is that the people who make the law are affected by it, too.”
The Public School Employee Retirement System — separate from the State Employee Retirement System — has investigated hundreds of potential forfeitures that ultimately did not meet the legal standard, spokeswoman Evelyn Williams said.
The retirement system’s staff and legal team collect leads on potential forfeiture cases from a range of sources, including news articles, the PDE certification discipline list and tips from attorneys.
“We have to look at every case on an individual basis because the details are very specific,” she said.
In total, 140 PSERS members have forfeited pensions since 2004, the year the retirement system creating a tracking spreadsheet to follow potential cases. Six members have forfeited pensions this year.
DePasquale’s audit found that PSERS generally catches forfeiture cases. In the report last year, auditors looked at 106 potential forfeiture cases during a three-year period and determined PSERS correctly identified which members should lose their pension.
In at least two cases, members continued to receive annuity payments for several months after convictions that should have disqualified them from receiving a state pension.
To better track cases, Williams said PSERS will soon begin working with the Pennsylvania Justice Network, a state-run service typically only available to public safety and court officials. That partnership will likely begin in the next month, she said.
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com