Former State Senator Could Lose Pension Funds if Found to Have Violated Federal Laws

Sunday, March 16th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Former Senator Gene Stipe could lose a sizable portion of his state pension if he is found to have violated federal laws or his oath of office while helping Walt Roberts' 1998 campaign for Congress.

A state law, passed in 1981, says public employees could lose benefits if they are convicted or plead guilty to a felony or any other offense that violates their oaths of office.

The 76-year-old McAlester Democrat resigned last week after 52 years in the Oklahoma Legislature at the center of federal investigation.

Three of Stipe's close associates have pleaded guilty or been charged with violating federal campaign laws.

Prosecutors say at least $239,000 in illegal contributions flowed into Roberts' congressional campaign. Stipe, considered to be the wealthiest member of the state Senate, has not been named in court documents and has yet to be charged.

Whether a particular offense is subject to this forfeiture depends upon the facts and circumstances of each individual case, said Lydia Lee, general counsel of the Oklahoma Public Employees Retirement System.

OPERS has deemed a number of different crimes to be violations of the oath of office, from bribery to embezzlement to filing false claims, Lee said.

"There's not a hard and fast rule that this crime always does and this crime never does. It depends on the position, it depends upon the crime, and also sometimes even the underlying facts and circumstances that are associated with the crime," Lee said.

"For example, a law enforcement officer may be held to a little higher standard; an elected official may be held to a little higher standard because of their oath of office to uphold all of the laws."

Upon retirement, an elected official who participated in the state pension system for at least six years and paid the maximum contribution would be entitled to an annual pension that is 4 percent of his or her highest annual salary multiplied by years of service in the system.

Using that formula, Stipe's annual pension apparently would be about $79,800.

Stipe has served 52 years in the Legislature and his most recent salary was at least $38,400.

If he is convicted or pleads guilty to a crime and OPERS determines that he had violated his oath of office, Stipe would no longer be able to count about 21 years of service from the September 1981 effective date of the forfeiture law to present.

He also would be unable to use $38,400 as his highest annual salary as a legislator. He would have to use the highest legislative annual salary he received during the 31 years preceding the forfeiture law to 1981. That was $18,000.

So instead of an estimated annual pension of $79,800, his pension would be about $22,320 a year.