Editorial: SJC ruling shows need to reform pension law

Last modified: Sunday, August 24, 2014
We are troubled by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling this week allowing a former high school teacher in Amherst to continue collecting his state retirement benefits. Justices followed a law that demands to be changed.

The Legislature should adjust the statute so that teachers convicted of reprehensible crimes against children, even on their own time, are no longer eligible to collect a state pension.

Some conduct so violates the public interest that provisions must be fashioned to disqualify people from receiving public benefits.

This is the case of Ronald T. Garney. The former Amherst teacher pleaded guilty in December 2007 to 11 counts of purchasing and possessing child pornography, he admitted committing crimes over 12 years while teaching in Amherst. Consuming child pornography directly violates one of the duties of a teacher, to protect children, and should be sufficient cause to forfeit a public pension. The Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System must now resume paying Garney $2,393 per month.

Garney had worked as a Grade 9 science teacher at Amherst Regional High School from 1984 until he was arrested in November 2006, and also had coached and refereed at school sporting events. Garney resigned in December 2006 after the school district told him he would be fired for conduct unbecoming a teacher. In December 2007, Garney was sentenced to between 2½ and three years in jail, followed by probation and registration as a sex offender.

Garney, 67, began collecting benefits from the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System on Aug. 22, 2007. He was paid $31,119 between his conviction four months later and early 2009, when the retirement system stopped his monthly allowance after its board determined that there was “a direct link between Mr. Garney’s employment and his possession of child pornography” in part because he sometimes used an email address provided by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. When Garney took legal action to restore his pension, a district court judge ruled against him but that decision was overturned in Worcester Superior Court. The MTRS then appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court.

In its ruling, the SJC states that while Garney’s crimes clearly made him unfit to continue teaching, they did not meet the much narrower standard requiring forfeiture of his pension. State law does not automatically end a public employee’s pension after any criminal conviction, but rather “there must be some direct connection between the criminal offense and the employee’s official capacity by way of the laws directly applicable to the public position,” the SJC ruled.

Garney viewed pornography on his home computer while off-duty and none of the 21 child victims who could be identified, ranging in age from 4 to 15, were Amherst students. Not even Garney’s use of a state-provided email address to view at least some of the pornographic websites was enough to convince the SJC that his crimes met the standard requiring forfeiture of his pension. “Garney committed his crimes outside of school, without using school resources or otherwise using his position to facilitate his crimes, and without involving students in his illicit activities,” the SJC concluded.

In supporting its reasoning, the SJC cited several other criminal cases involving municipal employees. A Maynard firefighter convicted of rape and indecent assault on several children — including two who were related to his fellow firefighters — was not required to forfeit his pension because there was no evidence that the molestations occurred while he was on duty nor did he break any laws directly related to his duties as a firefighter.

By contrast, a Boston police officer who was convicted of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon after he shot a fellow officer with his service revolver while off-duty and intoxicated did forfeit his pension. In that case, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that “this violation was directly related to his position as a police officer as it demonstrated a violation of the public’s trust as well as a repudiation of his official duties.”

The Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System attempted to apply the same logic in Garney’s case when it argued “that because teachers are charged with the social and emotional development of children, as well as the duty to protect them, ... Garney violated the fundamental responsibility of his position when he intentionally downloaded 565 illegal images of children engaged in sexual acts and surreptitiously collected an additional 85 videos of child pornography for his personal viewing. ... his criminal conduct encouraged the exploitation of children, the very class of citizens he was charged to protect.”

The high court didn’t have the tool it needed to deny Garney a pension he should not receive, and that’s why the Legislature should act.