November 2010 – Day 6: AZ Convicted Officials Still Get Pensions
Arizona’s convicted officials still get pension from state
Craig Harris – The Arizona Republic – Nov 2010
Former Pinal County Manager Stanley Griffis stole from his employer, didn’t pay income taxes and spent nearly three years in prison.
Griffis pleaded guilty in 2007 to six felonies, including theft and fraud from the county while he was working on behalf of taxpayers.
• Convictions don’t halt officials’ pension benefits
Today he’s collecting a publicly financed pension of $110,857 a year from the Arizona State Retirement System.
The pension is guaranteed for as long as he lives.
“There’s no provision in Arizona law that prohibits him from getting the money. I find it outrageous,” said outgoing Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley, who prosecuted Griffis. “This shows something is wrong with our system.”
The Arizona Republic, as part of an examination into Arizona’s public-pension systems, found Griffis and six former elected officials are receiving public pensions after being convicted of crimes they committed while in public office.
Their pensions, critics say, are an example of problems within the six-pension systems.
Increased benefits combined with declining returns on pension-system investments in the past decade have led to soaring costs for taxpayers to keep the systems afloat. Last year’s tab was $1.39 billion.
Griffis collects the largest pension among those in the pension systems who were convicted of crimes. The average pension for that group is $54,777.
Unlike Arizona, 22 states deny a state pension to public officials who are convicted of crimes while in office or are removed from office for criminal activity, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
These “bad boy” laws appeal to the public, but there’s an argument against such legislation, said Ron Snell, director of state services for the conference. Snell said someone in the private sector committing the same crime is not expected to forfeit a pension earned on the job.
“There’s a question of justice and whether this is a form of vengeance rather than equal punishment,” Snell said.
Griffis, who was released from state prison Feb. 22, could not be reached.
Romley has for the past few years called on the Arizona Legislature to change the law so public officials who have abused the public trust while working for the government cannot draw a state pension.
Arizona Senate President-elect Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, a former deputy sheriff, said in response to the Republic’s investigation that he would work to do that, calling the pension paid to Griffis “insulting.”
“You have honest people out there struggling, and you have a crook taking advantage of the system,” Pearce said. “These abuses have to stop.”
Paul Matson, the ASRS director, takes no position on the matter, saying it is up to lawmakers and the courts to determine whether a retiree should forfeit a pension.
Five convicted retirees are receiving pensions from the Elected Officials’ Retirement Plan, while another, a former Apache County sheriff, is receiving a pension from the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System.
Tracey Peterson, chief operating officer for those two systems, said her organization does not take a position on whether a convicted public servant should forfeit a pension.
Griffis, 68, retired as Pinal County manager on Jan. 12, 2006, the same day an investigation was opened into allegations he may have put public funds to personal use. Though he went to prison in 2007, he continued to draw his pension while incarcerated. He was county manager from October 1989 until he retired.
The probe that led to his conviction found that between December 2000 and February 2004, Griffis stole $426,800 from the Superstition Valley Transportation Project, which was designed to assist the growing county with road improvements.
Griffis also was accused of using a Pinal County credit card for personal use, including a $600 National Rifle Association Lifetime Membership for himself.
As part of his plea agreement, Griffis agreed to pay $639,035 in restitution, including $37,044 to the Arizona Department of Revenue for taxes owed.
Nearly $602,000 was to reimburse Pinal County for stolen money and investigative costs. Griffis has paid $275,000, with $237,956 going to the county and the rest going to the state, according to Pinal County records.
Romley, who was the special prosecutor in the case, said Griffis cited false wages to increase his pension, but ASRS was notified of the “pension padding” and his pension was reduced. However, his pension remains one of the highest among state retirees and is five times the average ASRS pension.
Public pensions in Arizona are based on a formula that typically includes a person’s ending salary, years of service and a multiplier. The more an employee makes and the longer a person works, the larger the pension. Pensions also can be acquired earlier by purchasing extra years of service credits. Employees invest more money into the trust while they are working so they reach the retirement threshold for full pension benefits earlier than normal.
Griffis’ pension was based on an ending salary of $152,747 and 38.57 years of service, according to ASRS. He purchased slightly more than 22 years of service for $284,373. The purchases were made from Feb. 2, 2002, to March 28, 2007, and it pushed his annual pension to $110,857. Griffis wrote two personal checks (totaling $28,654), deducted money from his salary ($44,028), and rolled over another retirement account ($97,537) to purchase credits, according to ASRS records. He also took two partial lump-sum payments ($114,154) against his retirement to buy credits, a common practice among ASRS retirees.