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Convicted felons can keep state pensions

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STATEWIDE, NC (WECT) - A new law went into effect this month involving retirement benefits for state employees. If the employee is convicted of a felony committed in the scope of their official duties, that employee could now forfeit their state retirement benefits.

House Bill 153 went comes on the heels of a number of high profile crimes involving state employees.

State Representative Thomas Wright was sent to prison in 2008 for obstruction of justice, stemming from a campaign finance scandal. More recently, Hoggard High School teacher and football coach Michael Supak was arrested this fall for indecent liberties with a student.

One of the more infamous cases involved Billy Williams - New Hanover County's former ABC Administrator who earned a felony conviction for using public money to build a garage at his own home.

Despite committing a felony in the course of his duties, William's is still eligible to draw a state pension which totals $195,000 a year.

Thanks to the new law, state employees who commit felonies directly related to their job from this point forward would lose retirement benefits. But there are still loopholes that would allow convicted felons to keep drawing benefits on the tax payer dime.

41-year-old Harvey Porter was arrested in August for possession of child pornography. Investigators who searched his home said they found several videos with underage children.

At the time, porter worked for UNCW. He was hired as a campus police officer in 1996, but more recently worked as an electronics specialist in the business affairs office.

While investigators said they had no reason to believe the crimes occurred on campus, Porter was still fired from his job after a brief, paid suspension. The university said Porter's behavior was unbecoming of a state employee.

But even if he's convicted for possession of child pornography, Porter will still be eligible for state retirement benefits totaling about a thousand dollars a month. Because the alleged crimes do not appear to have happened in the course of Porter's duties for the state, the newly enacted pension forfeiture law does not apply to his benefits.

This has been a hot topic nationally in recent years. Two months ago, Pennsylvania's State Employees Retirement System notified former football coach Jerry Sandusky they were revoking his pension, after he was convicted of sex crimes against children. But Sandusky's attorneys say the pension forfeiture laws don't apply to him since the victims weren't students at Penn State.

At least one state - Florida - has a law on the books that strips your state pension if you're convicted of certain crimes while employed by the state, regardless of the crimes ties to the employees' official duties.

But most states with pension forfeiture laws say to lose your pension - the criminal offense has to be related to your job.

A spokeswoman with the State Employees Association of North Carolina said that's only fair.

"This is not a gift from tax payers to employees, these employees have earned their retirement," explained Ardis Watkins, SEANC's legislative affairs director. "If the crime has nothing to do with the employment of the person, it seems like it would certainly be far reaching for the state to try to take action in that regard."

According to the state treasurer's office, tax payers contributed $583 million in 2010 to the State Employee Retirement Fund. But the vast majority of the funding comes from employees themselves, and investment income. Employee contributions that year totaled $836 million, while investment income brought in $5.7 billion.

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