In April 2006, a federal jury convicted former Governor George Ryan of multiple felonies, including racketeering, conspiracy, mail fraud, making false statements to the FBI, and income tax violations, all related to his conduct during the times he served as Secretary of State and Governor. These verdicts resulted in a 78-month prison term for Ryan and, in a second blow, a letter from the acting executive director of the Illinois State Retirement System advising Ryan that his pension benefits had been suspended pursuant to Section 2-156 of the Illinois Pension Code (Code) (40 ILCS 5/2-156 (West 2006)). This action was deemed retroactive to Ryan’s sentencing, covered benefits that had accrued from all of his government employment, and included loss of insurance coverage for Ryan and his wife.
Convinced that the retirement benefits he earned serving as a county board supervisor, a legislator, and Lieutenant Governor should not be subject to forfeiture, Ryan began his quest to reclaim those benefits, first in an appeal to the System’s Board of Trustees, and then through the administrative review process. Although the Board and the circuit court agreed with the termination of all of Ryan’s retirement benefits, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed, concluding that Ryan was entitled to receive the benefits that accrued during his terms as Lieutenant Governor and in the General Assembly. That victory for Ryan was short lived, as an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court followed, and this State’s highest court ruled in February 2010 in a 6-1 vote with Justice Burke dissenting, that, because of Ryan’s bad acts, the forfeiture of his retirement benefits “is total. Ryan gets nothing.” Ryan v. Board of Trustees of the General Assembly Retirement System, 236 Ill. 2d 315 (2010).
In reaching this conclusion, the Court relied on the “plain language” in two sections of the Code. Its first reference is to the definition of “member” in Section 2-105 (40 ILCS 5/2-105 (West 2006)), which covers persons serving as Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Comptroller, Attorney General, and members of the General Assembly. 40 ILCS 5/2-105. Next, the Court focused on Section 2-156 of the Code. According to that Section, “[n]one of the benefits herein provided for shall be paid to any person who is convicted of any felony relating to or arising out of or in connection with his or her service as a member.” (Emphasis supplied in opinion.) The Court then reads these two provisions together and reasons that, because Ryan is indeed a member of the System, and his crimes related to or arose out of or in connection with his service as a member, he cannot receive any of the benefits available under the System, no matter in what particular offices he served when he committed those criminal acts.
The Court concluded that a total forfeiture in Ryan’s situation was consistent with its pension forfeiture decision in Taddeo v. Board of Trustees of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, 216 Ill. 2d 590 (2005), even though a different result was reached regarding the pension claims of the former mayor of Melrose Park, and even though pension forfeiture statutes should be liberally construed in favor of the pensioner. In the underlying facts of that case, C. August Taddeo was convicted of felony offenses after pleading guilty to extortion and other crimes he committed during his tenure as mayor of Melrose Park. Thereafter, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund denied him all pension benefits he had accrued while serving as mayor and as Proviso Township supervisor, a decision upheld by the Illinois Appellate Court. In his appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, Taddeo admitted that his crimes were “related to” and “in connection with” his employment as mayor but argued that he should receive those pension benefits he had earned during his tenure as supervisor because there was no nexus between that employment and his conviction.
The Taddeo Court found this argument persuasive, noting that the “pivotal inquiry” in such cases is whether there is a “clear and specific connection” between the felony committed and the participant’s employment. Because Taddeo’s felony convictions related solely to his employment as mayor and were unrelated to his employment as Proviso Township supervisor, there was no nexus and thus no basis to disqualify Taddeo from receiving his supervisor’s pension. Taddeo, at 597. Moreover, and a significant fact for the Court, Taddeo had accrued two “completely separate pensions” in his two positions, which were maintained in segregated reserves in accordance with statutory requirements; therefore, the different participating government entities must be treated as independent units within the pension fund.
In explaining its decision in Taddeo, the Ryan Court reasoned that, because Taddeo worked for two separate municipal employers under the Code, only one of his employers suffered a breach of the public trust as a result of Taddeo’s misconduct. This reasoning is consistent with the principle stated in Ryan, that conviction of a job-related felony “results in the forfeiture of all pension benefits earned in service of the public employer whose trust was betrayed.” The public employer for whom Ryan worked while serving in his several offices was the State of Illinois.
The decisions in both Taddeo and Ryan reflect the public policy underlying pension forfeiture statutes: to “deter felonious conduct in public employment by affecting the pension rights of public employees convicted of a work-related felony.” For the Court, this policy certainly applied to Ryan, who betrayed the confidence that the citizens of Illinois placed in him by “transforming two of this state’s highest constitutional offices into an ongoing and wholly self-serving criminal enterprise.”
As Justice Burke reads the majority opinion, it is irrelevant to the Court that Ryan committed none of the felonies for which he was convicted while serving as Lieutenant Governor or in the General Assembly. According to the dissent, all that counts for the majority is that Ryan’s criminal activity occurred during his service in any one position of which he was a ‘member’ under the Code. Justice Burke then argues that this reasoning is precisely what was rejected in Taddeo.
Justice Burke finds the Court’s application of the nexus analysis in the two pension cases inconsistent because it results in contradictory interpretations. The dissent asserts that if the same analysis used in Taddeo is applied to Ryan’s service, and if it is therefore understood that Ryan’s ‘membership’ under each pension fund was distinct, then Ryan’s pension benefits, like those of Taddeo’s from his two employments, are also separate and severable. Accordingly, to be consistent with the analysis used in Taddeo and the results reached therein, Ryan should receive those pension benefits that accrued while he was Lieutenant Governor and a legislator. Unfortunately for Ryan, however, Justice Burke’s was the lone voice on the Court favoring this result, so Ryan appears to have reached a dead end in his quest for relief.