Convicted of Murder, Man May Keep 2 Pensions
WASHINGTON, Iowa (AP) — Thomas L. Hansen will likely lose his freedom for the rest of his life after a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder. But, at least for now, he will get to keep the lifetime pensions he earned as an Iowa City fire official and as Johnson County's emergency management director.
Jurors found the 72-year-old guilty of second-degree murder last week for fatally shooting his longtime companion to death after an argument while she was riding a lawn mower in their backyard in Riverside, south of Iowa City.
Hansen will face a mandatory term of 50 years behind bars when he is sentenced Feb. 1, and must serve at least 35 of them. Like other inmates, he will cost Iowa taxpayers more than $30,000 annually to be housed, according to the Department of Corrections.
Yet his two taxpayer-funded pensions, worth nearly that much, will continue to come monthly because a criminal conviction, even for murder, has no effect on them, state officials say. Lawmakers have not given Iowa's retirement systems — the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System and the Iowa Fire and Police Municipal Retirement System — the power to seek forefeiture of benefits from members convicted of crimes under any circumstances.
"He will continue to receive that," said Lora Shramek, a human resources official in Johnson County, where Hansen retired in 2007. "And this was his second public sector job. He would have a pension from his earlier position, too."
Hansen earned retirement benefits twice during a 38-year career in public service, which he reported last year were worth at least $26,400 per year, according to court documents. He also had been collecting an additional $10,800 per year in Social Security, but the agency cuts off payments to individuals who are incarcerated, unlike Iowa's programs.
Despite a middle-class retirement, a judge approved Hansen's request for taxpayer-funded defense days after his arrest in the May 1, 2011 shooting, saying not doing so would "cause substantial hardship." He has been represented for 18 months by the state public defender, including two attorneys who handled his weeklong trial. They argued Hansen did not intend to kill 54-year-old Sharon Gerot when he fired a single shot from his back porch that went through her head — only that he intended to frighten her after years of physical and verbal abuse.
The Iowa Department of Corrections does not have a position on whether public employees with pensions should be required to pay part of their housing costs, said spokesman Fred Scaletta.
IPERS spokeswoman Judy Akre says the agency follows court orders to garnish members' pensions as directed. For instance, a judge in June ruled that authorities can seize former job training official Ramona Cunningham's retirement benefits while she is incarcerated to pay down the $1.65 million in restitution she and a co-defendant owe over a scheme to inflate their pay. Testimony showed Cunningham had received more than $150,000 in pension benefits while behind bars.
Washington County Attorney Larry Brock said Hansen will be ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution to Gerot's estate at his sentencing. He said proceeds from their former home — which was sold in 2011 for $156,000 — have been held in escrow and would be used toward that judgment. It's not clear, he said, whether her family members could or will seek to garnish his pension benefits.
Unlike Iowa, half of the 50 states have a variety of laws allowing them to cancel pensions for public employees who are convicted of crimes, according to Governing Magazine, which conducted a review of them earlier this year. But most of those laws only apply to crimes that are directly related to one's job, such as public corruption, and would not appear to apply to a murder case.
Some federal agencies take a different approach. Social Security suspends payments to inmates and routinely prosecutes those who keep collecting benefits. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also will take away pensions from inmates.
Iowa's retirement system for police and fire workers directs the benefits of incarcerated members to their spouses first, and then minor children if they have any, a spokesman said. But that provision does not apply to Hansen, who had four adult children with his ex-wife. Hansen reported that he collects $1,300 a month from this pension, which he has received since his retirement in 1996 at age 55 as the no. 2 official in the Iowa City Fire Department.
Hansen went to work months later for Johnson County and directed its emergency management department, playing a key role responding to natural disasters. He retired in 2007 at a salary of $55,000. He reported receiving about $900 per month from IPERS for that job.
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