Crimes with Benefits: San Francisco Pays Wrongdoers Long Into Retirement

As of his last court appearance on Friday, disgraced former San Francisco police officer Paul Makaveckas was still collecting an annual pension of at least $101,650 — enough, presumably, to fund his mounting legal bills. Four years ago, he and an accomplice, William Hancock, were accused of handing out passing grades on taxi driver permit tests in exchange for bribes. Makaveckas now faces four felony criminal counts and the wrath of numerous San Franciscans, many of whom blame him for putting incompetent cabbies on the road.

And yet he might, conceivably, continue to enrich himself from city funds. Though Makaveckas may provide a textbook case of "moral turpitude" — lawyer-speak for misconduct that demands serious recompense — he'll only lose his pension if both the courts and the city take steps to revoke it.

Historically, San Francisco has seldom stripped retirement payments from venal city employees. Between 1907 and 2012, the city only denied four retirees their awards — among those punished was Dan White, who assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. A group of Central Station police officers who were accused of taking bribes in the '70s all received pensions while sitting in jail; parking meter attendants who'd been accused of a skimming operation kept drawing payments with impunity.

That's rankled many good-government types, who, on several occasions, pushed for tighter rules to keep crooked employees from being pampered. In 1966, San Francisco amended its charter to include a more rigorous test for pension recall; it allowed the city's Employee Retirement System to deny payments to anyone convicted of a crime of moral turpitude in connection with his or her job. In 2008, voters approved a new amendment to rescind other benefits — such as disability claims, or vesting allowances — from misbehaving former employees.

The reforms might have helped. Three more city workers lost their pensions between 2012 and 2014, suggesting San Francisco has taken a harsher stance toward its malefactors. And yet, some are still rewarded by the system. Deborah Madden, the crime lab technician who allegedly stole drug evidence she was supposed to be testing, managed to avert criminal charges in 2011; thus, she's entitled to a pension of about 75 percent of her $63,000 annual salary.

San Francisco officials may have grown more bullish about penalizing their worst transgressors — but they're still hamstrung by entrenched rules. If wayward employees aren't found guilty, they can keep collecting.

That might bode well for Makaveckas as he awaits trial — or for the San Francisco cops who were indicted, in February, for allegedly running a drug ring out of Mission Station. They've been tried in the court of public opinion, but not in the court of law. Sans a guilty verdict, they could reap from city coffers long after their crimes are forgotten.

 
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