In just two days, a federal judge could accept Bob Mellow’s plea agreement, and send him to prison.
What happens in court Friday could also determine if the former state senator from Lackawanna County will continue to receive his $11,000 a month state pension.
Here’s why he might: Pennsylania’s Act 140 spells out the crimes where public officials convicted of felonies may not be able to receive their generous pensions.
Newswatch 16 took a close look at the law, and found the specific crimes Mellow pleaded to could very well allow him to keep his pension.
After 40 years serving Lackawanna County as a State Senator, Bob Mellow retired and a year later his legacy was stained by the disgrace of public corruption.
Twenty-one months after agents raided his home and business, 13 months after court papers showed Mellow was investigated for extortion and money laundering, the former state senator copped a plea with federal prosecutors to lesser charges.
On Friday he is scheduled to plead guilty to tax evasion and mail fraud conspiracy.
When it comes to collecting pensions, Pennsylvania’s Act 140 does not call for taking away pensions or health care from public officials convicted of tax evasion.
“Something is fundamentally wrong with the system when you can break the law and the taxpayers pick up your health care and give you a pension,” said political activist Eric Epstein, director of Rockthecapital.org.
Epstein believes if Mellow had been tried and convicted of extortion and money laundering, which appears to have been the original focus of the investigation, the former senator’s pension would almost certainly be stripped.
Instead, the decision about whether Mellow will keep his pension may hinge on his plea to mail fraud conspiracy. Of the 20 crimes that can cost Pennsylvania state employees their pension, mail fraud is not specifically listed.
“We believe this is clearly theft by deception,” said Epstein, pointing to the Pennsylvania law. “He used money that was supposed to be used for one purpose, and used it for another purpose.”
Attorney Bill Costopoulos from Harrisburg has defended former elected officials on corruption charges. While the public may never know what went on behind closed doors in Mellow’s plea deal, he said defendants often to negotiate to keep their pensions the way they try to limit the time they serve in prison.
“And if the pension is significant, I think that kind of negotiation is appropriate,” said Costopoulos.
In Mellow’s case the pension is significant, $11,549 per month plus free health insurance.
Former State Representative Mike Veon and former State Senator Vince Fumo were convicted of corruption charges. Both are now serving lengthy prison terms. Both were stripped of their pensions.
Will that happen to Bob Mellow?
“I think it would be an absolute appalling decision to allow Mr. Mellow to keep his pension, but people need to understand Harrisburg is a separate planet,” said Epstein. “It’s not planet reality. It’s laws are subject to interpretation.”
The State Employee Retirement System Board is expected to take the matter of Bob Mellow’s pension up sometime after his sentencing.
A read of the law shows tax evasion will not cost him that pension and the federal crime of mail fraud is not specifically listed in state pension laws. Because of that, the senator may have reached a plea deal that not only will limit his time in prison, but allow him to keep his generous pension.