HARRISBURG, PA - The Board of Trustees of the PA Public School Employees' Retirement System voted to forfeit a former principal's PSERS pension because she pleaded guilty to criminal charges stemming from a grand jury investigation into standardized test cheating in the Philadelphia School District.
The board’s unanimous vote to deny the pension appeal of Evelyn Cortez, former principal of Philadelphia’ Cayuga Elementary School, was based on Pennsylvania's Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act of 1978 (Forfeiture Act) and court precedent.
In May 2014, a grand jury, commissioned by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, found Cortez and four other educators changed Cayuga students’ test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams from 2007 to Jan. 10, 2014. Cortez retired on May 3, 2014, and four months later the Attorney General’s office filed criminal charges against her. On Feb. 23, 2016, Cortez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to perjury, tampering with public records/information, and conspiracy to tamper with public records/ information.
After Cortez pleaded guilty, PSERS informed her it was terminating her $7,715 monthly pension benefits pursuant to the Forfeiture Act. The Act disqualifies public officials and public employees from receiving retirement benefits if they have been convicted of or pled guilty or no contest to any of the “crimes related to public office or public employment” [43 P.S. § 1312.]
In her appeal to the PSERS Board of Trustees, Cortez, a PSERS member since 1979, argued she should keep her pension because her guilty plea came after she retired, her lawyer was incompetent, she was innocent of the charges, and she was seeking a gubernatorial pardon.
The board determined that the Forfeiture Act compels the relinquishment of a public employee’s pension at the time a guilty plea is entered [43 P.S. § 1313(b)], regardless of employment status [43 P.S. § 1313(a)], and even though the employee has appealed the conviction.
Cortez has a right to appeal to Commonwealth Court.
For a full list of adjudications, see the Board of Trustees section of PSERS' website: https://www.psers.pa.gov/About/Board/Pages/default.aspx.
About the Pennsylvania Public School Employees' Retirement System
PSERS is the 15th largest state-sponsored defined benefit public pension fund in the nation. As of December 31, 2018, PSERS had net assets of approximately $54.9 billion and a membership of over 256,000 active school employees and over 233,000 retirees.