School employees and people who work for our local, state and federal governments get paid to serve the public, and they have a duty to maintain the public’s trust. Unfortunately, too many people break that trust and receive insignificant punishments.
The most notable recent example of this in Michigan comes from the 12 principals from Detroit Public Schools charged last year with crimes for accepting bribes. Collectively, they helped cheat the struggling Detroit district out of $2.7 million in supplies that the schools never received. Most of the principals involved in the scheme took plea deals and received jail sentences ranging from six months to three years.
Corruption has plagued schools and communities across our state, and apathy to white-collar crime by those in prominent positions of responsibility has added to the distrust people have for the government. More needs to be done to increase penalties and end this ongoing culture of corruption.
Under current law, the courts may order the forfeiture of a public pension when a public employee is convicted of a felony resulting from the misuse of public funds, or from the receipt of a bribe as a public employee. This penalty must be sought by the court, separate from restitution, as a credit back to the local unit and as a means of protecting tax payer dollars and the public trust. In the case of the DPS principals, Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed a suit seeking forfeiture of the portion of the pension paid by the Detroit Public Schools and the state during the time of their crimes. This is something that should be done each and every time a public employee is convicted of such a felony. However, in a recent House committee hearing an expert from the Attorney General’s Detroit office said that this penalty is rarely pursued.
Last week, the House unanimously approved a bill I have been working on for two years to mandate the forfeiture penalty for every public employee who is convicted of felony embezzlement and similar crimes. The bill replaces the word “may” in the current law with “shall,” requiring courts to order forfeiture of a portion of the pension for public employees who are convicted of stealing more than $1000 and similar felony charges. Furthermore, the bill adds language to allow for forfeiture of the employer contribution to a 401K, which the current law does not address. Mandatory forfeiture of both pensions and employer contributions to 401Ks will save trial expense in seeking this penalty, reimbursing the local unit, and setting a firm disincentive to breaching the public trust.
The state should never be put in a position of financing corruption. Decades of mismanagement and deeply rooted problems do not change easily and institutionalized corruption does not redeem itself with the stroke of a pen. For small township libraries and mega municipalities alike, financial responsibility and stable administration are primary components of success. Public offices at every level and schools across our state need experienced leadership they can trust. For this reason we must have swift and sure penalties for those who breach the public trust, penalties that can’t be waived by politics or busy courtrooms.