After returning raise, LaGrotta took it back

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HARRISBURG -- Former state Rep. Frank LaGrotta revoked repayment of his controversial 2005 pay raise after he lost his 2006 re-election bid, boosting his pension benefit.

Mr. LaGrotta, 49, who is on house arrest after pleading guilty to conflict of interest charges, yesterday confirmed that he stopped repaying the money and sought a refund for what he had already paid.

"After losing the primary in 2006, I decided to stop having the amount of the pay raise deducted from my salary. I also was reimbursed for the months I did pay back. It was perfectly legal, according to House Comptroller Alexis Brown," Mr. LaGrotta said yesterday.

The raise, which was repealed after four months, added $4,414 to Mr. LaGrotta's annual pay, bringing his 2005 total compensation to $77,568.

State law mandates that any raises for lawmakers cannot take effect until the session after they are approved. But in passing the raises, lawmakers created a loophole that allowed many, including Mr. LaGrotta, to receive higher pay immediately.

Like many other House members facing re-election in 2006, Mr. LaGrotta, an Ellwood City Democrat, initiated repayment plans to reimburse the state for the short-lived raise that infuriated constituents and was ultimately repealed. However, when he was defeated anyway in the May 2006 primary, he stopped making payments and eventually, requested and received reimbursement for what he had already paid back.

Neither Ms. Brown nor House Chief Clerk Roger Nick returned calls for comment yesterday.

Eric Epstein, founder of the watchdog group Rock the Capitol, uncovered the payment to Mr. LaGrotta while he was tracking the status of the 2005 raises for a report he expects to issue next week.

"Frank LaGrotta cannot pass up an opportunity to invest in a bad idea," he said.

Spokesmen for the House Republican and Democratic caucuses say they don't believe any other current or former lawmakers have revoked their raise repayments.

Earnings from the 2005 pay raise will help boost Mr. LaGrotta's annual pension by roughly $740 a year, according to estimates by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

State lawmakers' pensions are based on an individual's three highest-earning years. The pensions are paid at a rate of 3 percent on the average earnings for those three years, which is multiplied by the number of years of service.

In Mr. LaGrotta's case, he had 20 years as a legislator, and also worked previously for the state for three years. His average salary for his top three years was $71,304.

Mr. LaGrotta said he expects to receive an annual pension of $36,111 plus a one-time $102,000 lump-sum payment at age 59.5.

The Post-Gazette reported yesterday that he was eligible for a maximum of about $48,000 per year, but his actual payments will be less because of retirement options he selected. He chose to have benefits continue for beneficiaries who outlive him and he elected to receive the lump sum payment, which is equal to the total of his contributions to the pension fund plus interest on those contributions.

Lawmakers contribute 7.5 percent of their salaries to the pension fund.

Mr. LaGrotta was able to preserve his pension despite his recent sentencing to six months' house arrest for putting his sister and niece on his legislative payroll for work they didn't do. His charges, two counts of conflict of interest, are not on the list of 23 crimes that require forfeiture of state pensions.

Mr. Epstein was incensed that Mr. LaGrotta got to keep his pension, including the boost from the 2005 pay raise, despite crimes committed in the course of his public duty.

"It's clear that Mr. LaGrotta has not morally evolved," he said. "Does he have no shame?"


Tracie Mauriello can be reached at tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141. Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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