Story Highlights• Group estimates 20 crooked former lawmakers are earning government pensions
• Pensioners include Democrats and Republicans
• Democrats offered pension legislation last year, will offer again
By Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston
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(CNN) -- As Democrats pledge to clean up Congress when they take control this week, public interest groups are urging them to add one more item to their ethics reform list: Stop rewarding crooked colleagues.
Led by the conservative National Taxpayers Union, two dozen watchdog groups of all political stripes say it's time to stop making taxpayers pay the pensions of lawmakers who are convicted of or plead guilty to crimes committed while in office.
For example, Republican Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham of California, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to tax evasion and conspiracy to accept bribes and kickbacks from contractors he was voting to give government business, will pocket an estimated $64,000 annual government pension while serving eight years in a North Carolina federal prison. (Watch lawmakers reviving pension bills )
"I think the vast majority of Americans, certainly all the groups that signed the letter, think that's really wrong," said John Berthoud, president of the National Taxpayers Union.
Berthoud's group, which has urged tougher standards for disgraced members of Congress for years, estimates 20 crooked former lawmakers are earning government pensions.
They come from both sides of the political aisle. James Traficant, a former Democratic representative from Ohio who was convicted of bribery, racketeering and tax evasion, is serving eight years in a Minnesota prison and getting an estimated $40,000 pension. Former Republican Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota, who pleaded guilty to fraud in 1995 and served a year's probation, receives an estimated $86,000 a year, according to the National Taxpayers Union.
The figures are estimates because Congress keeps the amount of all federal pensions secret. Pensions are based on years in office and any contribution the officeholder might make. But most of the money comes straight out of taxpayers' coffers. Right now, federal law stipulates the only grounds to strip a congressional member of his or her pension is treason. Admitting to being a common crook does not cause forfeiture of the pension.
"It's hard, unless you are a member of Congress or former member of Congress, for anybody to understand how on earth you could ask taxpayers to pay pensions for people like these,'' Berthoud said.
Traficant and Cunningham did not answer letters requesting comment, and an assistant to Durenberger said the former senator was not available to talk about his pension. CNN, however, did directly contact the convicted lawmaker who is estimated to pull down the biggest pension, Illinois Democrat Daniel Rostenkowski, former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
Known for his booming voice and the clout he wielded for years on the Hill, Rostenkowski said he did not want to talk about the matter. He served time for mail fraud and earns a $126,000 pension, according to the Taxpayers Union calculations. That gives him 126,000 good reasons, critics say, to keep his opinion about the matter to himself.
Drew Hammill, a spokesman for incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said House Democrats, with the support of Pelosi, offered legislation last year that would strip current members of their pensions if convicted of a felony. Hammill said Democrats will reintroduce similar legislation in the 110th Congress, which begins Thursday.
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