A Gilbert Republican lawmaker is crafting legislation he says will crack down on public officials who illegally waste money and then walk away with lucrative pensions.
Rep. Warren Petersen said his proposal will spell out that anyone who is found guilty would forfeit any future benefits. While there already are laws on the books against fraud and misappropriation of public funds, he said these cases don’t always get pursued as the official is fired or even allowed to quit.
“All too often, those who are caught and terminated leave with lavish payouts, annuities, pensions and other benefits,” Petersen said.
“Termination from a high position in government office should not be like winning the Lotto,” he continued. “Rewarding someone for bad behavior can only encourage more of the same.”
Petersen said the measure follows disclosure that Valley Metro CEO Stephen Banta spent lavishly on meals and travels. That includes reports that some of the people he claimed to be entertaining on the public dime say they were not at those events.
Banta has denied any wrongdoing but is resigning effective next month, he says under pressure. But he is reportedly walking away not just with his public pension but a big annuity.
Nothing in the legislation could affect Banta, who will be long gone by the time the measure comes up for debate. And Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who is working on the plan with Petersen, said Banta is presumed innocent of any wrongdoing.
But Petersen said whatever happens to Banta is irrelevant.
“While this has received a lot of attention, this is certainly not the first case of this happening in the state of Arizona,” Petersen said. “Clearly there is neither sufficient deterrent nor oversight in place to prevent such malfeasance.”
He said the measure would do more than empower public agencies to deny pensions and other payouts. It also would permit any taxpayer to ask a court to intercede.
Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who is working with Petersen, said that is important because the boards that control agencies like Valley Metro don’t really do much oversight of their top employees.
“It’s one of those situations where you have all these people in a room and nothing gets done,” he said.
“What this does, it’s going to put a chill to government officials when they’re thinking or contemplating doing something bad,” DiCiccio said. “They don’t want to lose those hefty pensions.”
Petersen acknowledged that allowing any taxpayer to sue could lead to meritless litigation. He said, though, there is nothing in the measure at this point to allow the person being sued to recover his or her legal fees.