AUGUSTA — Public employees who commit crimes at work and violate the public’s trust could lose their state pensions under a new legislative proposal unveiled Thursday.

Rep. Les Fossel, R-Alna, is proposing the action in response to the case of former Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Paul Violette, who is facing jail or prison time after pleading guilty to theft of public funds during his tenure. Violette could spend as many as five years behind bars, but will keep his $5,288.52-a-month state pension because Maine has no forfeiture law.

Violette is scheduled to be sentenced April 6 in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court in Portland.

Fossel’s proposal would not affect Violette — it can’t be retroactive — but it could be costly for any future public officials who commit a similar crime.

The new bill, L.R. 2745, would put Maine in line with more than 15 other states that have pension forfeiture laws that enable or require courts to cut off pension in certain cases.

“Violation of the public trust is a serious offense,” Fossel said in a written statement. Fossel serves on the Government Oversight Committee which investigated the allegations against Violette last year.

The bill addresses crimes rated as Class C or greater, which bring incarceration of at least five years, he said.

A public officer found guilty of a job-related crime could lose his or her pension, but that penalty would be left to the court to decide on a case-by-case basis.

The only part of a pension the person could not lose is the amount contributed by the member to the retirement system, without interest, under the bill.

Fossel’s proposal also would require employees convicted of theft to make restitution. Violette has already paid restitution totaling $155,000.

The only part of a pension the person could not lose is the amount contributed by the member to the retirement system, without interest, under the bill.

Fossel said Violette did some good things as a state official over the years, but he also did some bad things and is getting punished.

“The purpose of this bill is to say going forward, if this happens again and someone doesn’t want to give up their pension to pay restitution,” the court could take away the pension, he said. “It’s a deterrent.”

Several Republicans have already signed on as co-sponsors. Some had been working on similar bills in the wake of the Violette case, he said.

Fossel said he also expects support from Democrats, in part because he made sure the bill left discretion to the courts. Mandatory pension forfeiture laws have been controversial in some states because less serious violations carry the same financial penalty as the most serious ones.

“I like the idea that the court has options,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, also a member of the Government Oversight Committee. Diamond had yet to see the bill, but said the concept makes sense.

“I think it’s a good direction to go in,” he said. “It … makes a statement that we hold that trust in high regard.”

John Richardson — 620-7016

[email protected]

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