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Texas may still be giving state-funded pension to convicted elected officials

More than two dozen former elected officials convicted of felonies may be receiving taxpayer-funded retirement pay. But state law keeps the details secret.

Sen.Van Taylor R-Plano questions a witness during a Aug 3, 2016 Senate Committee on Education meeting

*Correction appended

Numerous former government officials convicted on corruption charges, ranging from a former Texas attorney general to local mayors and district clerks, are still eligible to collect lucrative public pensions, a Texas Tribune investigation has found.

The Tribune identified more than two dozen former elected officials with prior felony convictions who are potentially collecting retirement payouts. They include former Attorney General Dan Morales, former state Rep. Joe Driver and the former sheriff of Hidalgo County, Lupe Treviño. State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, is facing felony abuse-of-office charges and could soon join the list.

But a veil of secrecy over the state and local pension systems in charge of the retirement payments makes it impossible to find out whether individual government employees-turned-convicts are receiving them or how much they receive. 

The Tribune investigation drew from news accounts and records obtained from the office of Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, who authored Senate Bill 14 — a sweeping ethics bill filed last month — in part to revoke pensions from law-breaking lawmakers. Taylor requested information on politician-convicts from the state's public pension systems and provided the Tribune with a list of names in response to a public information request.

“The thought of a corrupt and criminal politician sitting in a jail cell collecting a government pension is appalling,” Taylor said in an email. “Through a series of inquiries, I uncovered evidence that elected officials convicted of felonies while in office receive taxpayer funded pensions in prison."

Taylor said he couldn't provide details on which convicted former officials received retirement pay or the amount they receive.

The Tribune obtained a list of 45 elected officials who might be qualified to receive pensions despite prior felony convictions. Of those, the Tribune has identified 27 government officials who have fulfilled the minimum requirements to collect retirement pay, despite convictions for crimes ranging from drug trafficking to extortion.

Among the former officials eligible to collect retirement pay either now or when they reach retirement age are:

  • Morales, who pleaded guilty in 2003 to altering government records to give lawyer friend Marc Murr more than $500 million from the $17.3 billion settlement that tobacco companies paid the state to alleviate health care costs for damages caused by smoking. After serving eight years as attorney general and six years as a state representative, Morales served three years in federal prison. Morales could not be reached for comment.
  • Former state Rep. Jim Solis, D-Harlingen, who in 2011 pleaded guilty to helping former state District Judge Abel C. Limas with his racketeering scheme; an attorney at the time, Solis admitted to paying Limas $8,000 for more favorable rulings. He served three years in prison, while Limas is still serving a six-year sentence in federal prison. Solis could not be reached for comment.
  • Driver, the former lawmaker who pleaded guilty in 2011 to abuse-of-office charges for double-billing his campaign and the state for travel expenses. Driver, who is eligible to collect $64,400 a year in retirement based on his 20 years of service, declined to comment on the pension revocation legislation.
  • Treviño, the former Hidalgo County sheriff, pleaded guilty to money laundering after he admitted to accepting campaign contributions from a convicted drug trafficker. Treviño was sentenced to five years in prison and will not be released until January 2019.

"This adds insult to the public's injury," Taylor said. "Not one dime from hardworking, honest Texas families should fund corrupt politicians who disgraced their office and betrayed the people's trust.”

Taylor's bill would not apply retroactively, and because it only covers felony convictions, it does not cover all law-breaking government employees. For example, it wouldn't apply to cases like that of former Panola County Sheriff Ron Clinton, who pleaded guilty to tampering with a government document in 2013 and had his record cleared after successfully completing three years' probation, or former Marion County Commissioner C.E. Bourne, who was found guilty of two misdemeanors for stealing diesel fuel from the county’s precinct barn.

The bill would apply to all major retirement systems, including the Judicial Retirement System, for judges; the Employees Retirement System of Texas, which covers state employees and statewide elected officials; and the retirement systems for municipal and county employees. 

Under current law, only judges can have their pensions revoked after committing a crime, but that’s not automatic. Every judge on the Tribune's list resigned before they could be removed from office, allowing them to remain eligible to collect retirement pay.

It's unclear how — or whether — Taylor's bill would affect Dukes, who was recently indicted for abuse-of-office felonies and misdemeanors and would still be eligible under current law to collect $70,840 a year in retirement pay for her 22 years of service even if she's convicted.

The Senate approved SB 14 unanimously on Feb. 7; state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, is expected to spearhead the ethics reform effort, including the pension revocation provision, in the House. If passed, the bill would take effect on Sept. 1.

But the bill doesn't address the lack of public access to retirement pay records — even when money is going to convicted felons.

Starting in the late 1990s, state lawmakers began closing off public access to their own retirement benefits records — and those of state employees. In a state that pays its legislators only $7,200 per year, pensions constitute a legislator’s biggest payday: after eight years of service, they are eligible for $25,760 per year in retirement pay by age 60; after 25 years of service they can net $80,500 per year.

Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, said he believes the secrecy effort came after his group successfully gathered information about legislators-turned-lobbyists collecting pensions in the 1990s.

TPJ found around 50 former lawmakers working as lobbyists and wanted to know how much retirement they collected from the state while lobbying their old colleagues. But the retirement system refused to release the data, arguing that individual retirement information was private. So TPJ asked for a grand total, and Morales, who was attorney general at the time, ruled in their favor.

But when TPJ tried to update the data a decade later, legislation blocked them.

“Since that first open records request, [the Legislature] had passed two or three bills to prevent people like us doing things like that ever again,” Wheat said. “We ended up filing a lawsuit trying to get a judge to force them to turn over the data.”

A 2011 bill made existing confidentiality statutes even tighter, and TPJ lost the case for retirement records access in 2013 when a Travis County judge dismissed their suit. 

Jay Root contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of government officials who have fulfilled the minimum requirements to collect retirement pay, despite various convictions. The Tribune identified 27 such officials.

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