WASHINGTON -- When former Sen. John Ensign resigned from Congress this month, he became eligible to take home a parting taxpayer gift -- an estimated $27,000 in annual retirement pay.
Even as he departed under a cloud, Ensign, 53, qualifies for a full pension once he turns 62, based on his 10 years of service and salaries he earned while representing Nevada in the U.S. Senate, according to calculations by the National Taxpayers Union.
"Even though the amount may appear to be relatively small, for a little over 10 years of service it is not a bad return at all," said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the nonprofit tax watchdog group. He added the pension further is protected by annual cost-of-living increases.
Congressional pensions are typically two to three times more generous than those offered to similarly salaried workers in the private sector, according to the National Taxpayers Union. Further, only one in 10 private plans offers similar cost-of-living features.
The retirement system for members of Congress was designed to provide larger benefits to lawmakers and staffers than to most other federal employees, "because of the uncertain tenure of congressional service," according to the Congressional Research Service.
Lawmakers "become eligible for retirement annuities ... at an earlier age and with fewer years of service than most other federal employees," the agency said. Participants contribute 1.3 percent of their salaries into the system, a higher percentage than other workers.
The promise of a retirement check is one of just a few bright spots these days for Ensign in the wake of a Senate ethics investigation that uncovered evidence he may have committed criminal wrongdoing stemming from his handling of an extramarital affair with the wife of a top aide when both of them were on his payroll.
Ensign resigned on May 3 under pressure from the probe.
The leaders of the Senate Ethics Committee said in a May 12 report that investigators found "substantial" evidence the Nevadan may have committed conspiracy, obstructed justice and made false statements in what they characterized as an attempted cover-up.
Ensign has maintained his innocence. The Justice Department, which declined to target Ensign after an earlier investigation into the affair and its aftermath, has said it plans to review the Senate findings.
RETIREMENT PAY RISK
If Ensign were to become further entangled, his retirement pay could be at risk. There have been backlashes in Congress over generous pensions paid to lawmakers who run afoul of the law.
When former Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, was expelled in 2002, some House members tried to strip his benefits but legislation to do so became stalled and did not pass.
Former California Rep. Randall "Duke" Cunningham's guilty plea in November 2005 on charges of accepting $2.4 million in bribes and evading taxes prompted new efforts to cancel taxpayer-funded pensions for convicted lawmakers.
A crackdown sponsored by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Ken Salazar, D-Colo., was signed into law in 2007 as part of a broad package of Senate reforms. It included provisions that effectively would nullify retirement benefits to lawmakers convicted of ethics offenses such as bribery, fraud, conspiracy and perjury.
No lawmaker to date has had benefits taken away. Former Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., was convicted on corruption charges in August 2009 and sentenced to 13 years in prison, but is appealing his sentence.
The ethics law stipulates all appeals must be exhausted before a convicted lawmaker can be stripped of a pension, according to Sepp. He said members of Congress facing serious charges might be motivated to accept a plea deal on lesser counts in order to protect their retirement.
ENSIGN FINANCES TAKE HIT
Meanwhile, Ensign's personal finances appear to have taken a blow from the scandal, according to new documents filed in the Senate.
A final financial report Ensign submitted on May 13 indicated his personal wealth continued to shrink at a time he has hired multiple teams of attorneys to defend him in the Senate ethics probe and related investigations by the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission.
Ensign's assets totaled between $1.697 million and $6.097 million as of the end of 2010, according to the document, including at least $597,489 in bank and credit union accounts, and custodial money market accounts for his three children.
A year earlier, his wealth totaled between $2.5 million and $7.1 million, including at least $1.4 million in bank accounts and funds.
Efforts to contact Ensign on Friday were unsuccessful.
Before being elected to the Senate in 2000, Ensign served four years as a House member from 1995 to 1998. Sepp said those years were not included in the National Taxpayer Union calculation of Ensign's retirement pay.
They would not have been enough for Ensign to meet a five-year vesting requirement, and it is likely he "cashed out," or got a refund of his payroll contributions, when he left the House, Sepp said.
Ensign could choose to start collecting retirement at age 56, but his payouts would decrease by 30 percent, Sepp said.
In addition to pensions, lawmakers while in Congress also qualify to take part in a 401(k) style Thrift Savings Plan that matches their contributions up to 5 percent.
"When you start adding up the totals, the combination of pension plus the thrift savings plan plus Social Security is a solid retirement package that would be very hard to find in the private sector," Sepp said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.