When it comes to making a decision between losing a person’s freedom or losing their pension, most would probably give up the money. But under a relatively new law, government workers convicted of stealing are losing both.

That reality was brought home last week in the case of former Redding road supervisor Bruce Sanford, who is serving a three-month jail sentence for first-degree larceny. Last year, Sanford admitted he sold two of the town’s aging street sweepers and a truck and pocketed the money.

Sanford avoided a potential five-year prison sentence by accepting a plea agreement, but the conviction exposed him to losing his $1,117 per month town pension. The state Attorney General’s Office filed a request last week to revoke Sanford’s entire pension, making him the fifth public official targeted since the state pension revocation law was passed in 2008.

"That’s really unfortunate," his lawyer, Michael Corsello said in a phone interview from his Norwalk office. "He’s going to wind up impoverished."

To some extent, state officials say, that’s the point. "Taxpayers should not be responsible for the pension of someone who is found or pleads guilty of stealing public funds," Attorney General George Jepsen said. Pointing to Sanford as an example, Jepsen emphasized that his office will seek revocation of pensions of any state or municipal officials who embezzle funds or accept bribes.

Sanford’s lawyer said his client is still in jail and had not been informed that his pension is at risk. He’ll get a chance to argue against the Attorney General’s Office at a future Superior Court hearing.

Of the four previous cases of government officials convicted of stealing since the pension law was passed, former Salisbury school clerk Lori Tompkins lost her $22,000-a-year pension, and Karen Guillet, a former tax collector from Oxford, forfeited her retirement benefits of roughly the same amount.

Two other cases are pending. James Santorella, a former City of Stamford accountant who stole $21,000 in taxpayer funds, is fighting government attempts to take away his $5,297 per month pension.

And Eddie Perez, the former Hartford mayor convicted of corruption in 2010 and sentenced to three years in prison, has been fighting his conviction and an attempt to revoke his $27,600 per year pension. He has already unsuccessfully argued that his pension should not be at risk because the alleged corruption occurred between 2005 and 2007, more than a year before the state law was passed.

But he may be fighting an uphill battle. "It is clear the trigger of this statute is the conviction [date], instead of the commission of the acts that would lead to the revocation of the pension," wrote Judge Trial Referee Richard Rittenband in a ruling that keeps Perez’s pension in jeopardy.

Rowland Fallout

The pension revocation law was a reaction to a rash of political corruption episodes in Connecticut, including the conviction of former Gov. John Rowland.

The law has two primary goals. Forfeited pensions can be used to pay restitution to the municipality where the corrupt official worked. (Or as restitution for the state, in the case of state officials). The statute is also supposed to serve as a deterrent. A public official convicted of financial misdeeds might spend only a few months in prison; the prospect of losing a $20,000 per year benefit might be worse, for some.

"While this can be viewed as a form of punishment, and the person who is losing their pension certainly feels that way, I think the idea of the law was for it to act as an incentive to keep government employees from these types of crimes," said state Rep. Arthur O’Neill, R-Southbury, who serves on the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

One interesting point is that the law didn’t hurt Rowland. Although Rowland resigned from office in the middle of his impeachment inquiry in 2004 and served served 10 months in prison on federal corruption charges, he now collects his $5,000 a month pension and recieves low-cost state health benefits.

State officials and legislators said there was nothing they could do to revoke Rowland’s pension, because there was no law allowing such action at the time of his conviction. "There is obviously justifiable anger on this," state Comptroller Kevin Lembo said, referring to Rowland’s situation. "But until such time as the law changes, that’s what we have to do."

The Attorney General’s Office said the requests to revoke pensions are triggered when a guilty plea or conviction is reached in a criminal case involving any public employee.

The office files a complaint in Superior Court, and the matter is assigned to a judge in the judicial district where the crime occurred. A hearing is scheduled within 90 days, and the defendant has an opportunity to argue why the pension should not be revoked. There have been few defense challenges so far.

The judge has broad discretion to revoke the entire pension, or part of it, said Jacyln Falkoski, a spokewoman for the Office of Attorney General. For instance, defense lawyers could argue that revocation of the entire pension would put a burden on the defendant’s family.

"If the court determines that a pension should be reduced, it may take into consideration the financial needs of an innocent spouse, dependents or designated beneficiaries," Falkowski said. "The court can award some or all of that reduced pension to an innocent spouse, dependent or beneficiary, at its discretion."

‘Unduly Punative’

Bruce Sanford, who worked for Redding for 22 years and is now in his 60s, used the town money he reaped from selling town vehicles to repair his antique Mack truck and a lawn mower. While there was some dispute over how much he profited from his thefts, the town recovered $20,000 from its insurance carrier.

"There were rumblings that they might want to pursue his pension," said Corsello, the Norwalk attorney. "What we have here is a reasonably nominal amount of money [that was stolen] and I think taking his pension would be unduly punative."

Defending a pension is a new area for labor and employment lawyers. Corsello said he’s already started to research the issue, and has been struck with the small amount of case law available. "There’s nothing," he said.

While there are so-called "bad clauses" which allow private employers to withhold pensions and benefits from employees who steal from them, the restrictions in the law allowing such clauses make their use "very rare," said Margaret Sheahan, an employment lawyer with Mitchell & Sheahan in Stratford.

"There is a provision in the law that allows you to withhold a pension in situations where someone has embezzled a great deal of money, but the burden is very high for the employer to show the person [should not be given their pension,]" Sheahan said. "Employment law is very protective of the rights of employees."

Corsello questioned whether there was some selective enforcement of the law for public officials, considering that the Attorney General has only sought to revoke five pensions since the law was enacted. He wondered whether there were more cases that would apply to the law.

But officials in the Attorney General’s Office said they have moved to revoke the pensions of all public officials convicted of stealing public money. For one thing, they noted, a pension is fair game only if the person is convicted of a financial crime related to their public position.

The state can’t revoke "someone’s pension if they are convicted of drug possession or domestic violence," explained Falkowski, the AG’s spokeswoman.

Bargaining Chip

In the two cases that have already been settled, attorneys have chosen not to fight to save a client’s pension. Instead, the pension was used as a bargaining tool to limit prison time.

That’s how attorney Dominick Thomas viewed the pension of his client, Karen Guillet, who stole $234,000 from the Town of Oxford while working as the tax collector. She used the money to fund high-end shopping sprees at stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, according to court records.

When he was working on a possible plea bargain deal, Thomas said he wasn’t looking to protect his client’s pension, but to shorten her imminent prison sentence. He told prosecutors his client had no problem if the pension money was used for restitution.

Guillet also agreed to forfeit a retirement account that she had contributed to, which was not subject to the revocation law. At Guillet’s sentencing, Thomas asked Superior Court Judge Richard Arnold to consider an 18-month sentence, followed by community service. Arnold sentenced Guillet to four years.

In some cases, Thomas said, it might be in an attorney’s best interest to try to fight for their client’s pension. For instance, if someone who works for the government is accused of taking $100,000 and they pay the $100,000 back, "why should they [also] have to forfeit the pension?"•