Published on: 01/16/2000
Section: FRONT
Edition: FINAL
Page: A1
By CHRIS ROBERTS, Staff Writer
Illustration: DIAGRAM: COLOR

Caption: Stolen time ROB BARGE/THE STATE

The South Carolina Retirement System writes a $3,300 pension check each month to inmate No. 258719. Each check proves Joe Klein beat the system.

Klein is a state prisoner, caught stealing $3.5 million from budgets that the Sumter 17 school district trusted him to manage. But, even after Klein was caught, he saved his last theft so it could pay him for the rest of his life.

Two weeks after Klein was suspended from his job as Sumter 17's finance chief, he gave the state $45,000 that he'd stolen to buy 28 more months of credit in the S.C. Retirement System.

That extra time was part of nine years of credit that Klein bought while Sumter 17's assistant superintendent of fiscal affairs.

That stolen money gave Klein, then 51, credit for 30 years of service that he needed to begin receiving unreduced retirement benefits.

In December 1997 - two months after his suspension and 18 months before he went to prison - Klein began receiving $3,800 a month in pre-tax retirement pay. Prosecutors say the money has gone into a banking account controlled by his ex- wife.

A judge ordered Klein to pay $180,000 in restitution during his five years' probation - $3,000 a month from his pension. But the state writes him a monthly check while he's in prison, and the check will return to his control when his probation ends.

And under state law, there's nothing anyone can do about it.

"Basically, you can't touch a pension," said William Cason, who was hired as Sumter 17's superintendent the same month that Klein went to prison.

But the Sumter 17 school board is trying. Its civil lawsuit against Klein is targeting his pension, wanting it to help repay what he stole.

"As much was taken needs to come back to this school district," Cason said. "Every penny of it should have been spent on kids, not on gambling trips and escort services and whatever else."

In Florida and other states, Klein couldn't draw a pension.

Florida law denies pensions to state employees who commit felonies, including embezzlement of public money.

"We don't have just lots of cases, but we've had a few over the years," said Mary Beth Brewer of Florida's Department of Retirement.

South Carolina has had several cases involving high-profile pensioners who betrayed the public's trust. In 1994, for example, former lawmaker Sam Mendenhall went to prison for trading sex for favorable rulings in his family court.

Five times from 1994-'97, the South Carolina Legislature killed bills that would have denied pensions to state employees convicted of stealing or other malfeasance in office.

"I've just felt like those folks don't deserve a pension," said state Rep. Herb Kirsh, D-Clover, who saw three bills he sponsored die in the House.

Kirsh said his bills died because some other lawmakers were afraid.

"I remember someone saying, 'It makes your family suffer because of your mistake,'' " he said.

After questions about the issue from a State newspaper reporter, Kirsh filed the bill again last week.

Gov. Jim Hodges, while a House lawmaker in 1994, saw a similar bill that he sponsored die a quick death.

In the Senate, former Sen. Larry Richter, R-Charleston, said his 1995 bill was focused narrowly to stop what he thought were abuses.

The narrow focus didn't help his proposal.

Said Richter, "That bill didn't go anywhere."

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