Steve Nunn will receive state pension despite murder conviction

State law has no stipulation for stripping benefit due to felony

jbrammer@herald-leader.comJune 30, 2011 

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Steve Nunn, seen here at a hearing in Fayette Circuit Court on Aug. 19, 2010.

PABLO ALCALA

FRANKFORT — Former state lawmaker and convicted murderer Steve Nunn is eligible to get about $28,210 a year in state retirement benefits, plus cost-of-living increases, once he turns 62.

Kentucky law does not allow the pension benefits of state lawmakers to be withheld unless they commit a crime while in office in their capacity as a legislator.

"There's no statutory provision to withhold a pension based on Nunn's circumstances," said Donna S. Early, executive director of the retirement system for legislators and judges.

Nunn, 58, pleaded guilty Tuesday in Fayette Circuit Court to the 2009 murder of Amanda Ross, his former fiancée. He was scheduled to go to trial in August. Nunn waived formal sentencing, and Judge Pamela Goodwine sentenced him to life in prison without possibility of parole.

It's doubtful that Nunn's state benefits can be stopped now, but the chairmen of the House and Senate state government committees said they want to study the issue.

House State Government chairman Mike Cherry, D-Princeton, and his counterpart in the Senate, Republican Damon Thayer of Georgetown, said they will ask legislative staff to look at the law and find out how other states handle retirement benefits for those who commit felonies.

"I would like to know about this not only for legislators but for across the board in state government," Cherry said. "I think the public will be concerned about this."

Thayer said a bill that would end pensions for convicted felons might be filed in the state Senate for consideration in next year's legislative session.

"The big question is whether Nunn's pension can be removed retroactively," he said.

In Kentucky's history, some lawmakers have been convicted of a felony and retained their state pensions. But none until Nunn has been involved in a capital offense.

Nunn, a Republican and the son of the late former Gov. Louie B. Nunn, became a state representative from Glasgow in 1991.

In 2006, Steve Nunn lost a bid for re-election. In 2007, he endorsed Democrat Steve Beshear for governor and subsequently landed a job as deputy secretary of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

Nunn and Ross started dating in September 2007 and became engaged after dating less than a year. In February 2009, Ross filed a domestic- violence petition against Nunn, and he was placed the next day on unpaid administrative leave from his state job. He resigned a few weeks later

Early, with the retirement commission, said Nunn's retirement benefits were based on his last three highest state salaries as a legislator and administrator. His legislative salary in 2006 was $38,801. As an administrator, his salary was $117,875, which boosted his pension.

A legislator may begin drawing retirement benefits at a reduced level before 62, Early said.

"I can't tell you whether Nunn is drawing a benefit now," she said. "I can say at 62 he can start drawing full benefits."

In Kentucky's judicial branch of government, judges may lose their pensions if they are removed by a judicial commission for cause. But that has never happened, Early said.

Often, judges who know their benefits might be threatened have resigned before being removed.

For executive branch employees and teachers in Kentucky, the law provides that any person hired on or after Aug. 1, 2000, who is convicted of a felony related to his or her job must forfeit retirement benefits. However, they would receive a refund of money they contributed to their accounts, plus accumulated interest.

A few states — Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, New Mexico and New York — have no laws on termination of state government pensions, said Sujit M. CanagaRetna, senior fiscal analyst for the southern regional branch of The Council of State Governments in Atlanta.

An April study by the National Association of State Retirement Administrators shows that other states have laws ranging from Arizona's, which allows courts to order forfeiture of retirement benefits for state workers convicted of felonies, to Nevada's, which voids retirement benefits only in cases involving a person convicted of murder or lying to receive benefits.

"Most states are going through tough times now with their pension plans," CanagaRetna said. "When you have a felon still getting state benefits, that's making it more stark. The symbolism and perception of that in the public's eye is not good."

Nunn's retirement benefits could be an issue in a wrongful-death lawsuit the family of Amanda Ross filed against him Sept. 28, 2009. A jury will determine whether Nunn owes money to the Ross family for damages.

Herald-Leader staff writer Beth Musgrave contributed to this article.

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