Even After Stealing From the Public, Ex-School Officials Keep Their Pensions

Rick Sorrells is a disgraced former school administrator, an admitted criminal, a soon-to-be resident of the federal prison system and, despite all of that, he is eligible to receive his full state pension.

Sorrells, who admitted taking $3 million in bribes in a scandal that destroyed the agency he once led, is facing a maximum 10 years behind bars for wire fraud.

But his pension is protected by Texas laws that allow the benefits to stay in place even if serious financial crimes have been committed, NBC 5 Investigates has learned.

That is different from other parts of the country -- New York City, California, Oklahoma, Louisiana for example -- where officials said pensions are stripped from school administrators who cheat taxpayers.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas confirmed that Sorrells is a "retiree," meaning he is already receiving his pension.

Under privacy rules the TRS cannot release the amount Sorrells is currently receiving.

However, using the TRS pension formula, NBC 5 Investigates did the math and found that Sorrells -- who made more than $200,000 a year as superintendent of Dallas County Schools -- is likely eligible to receive a yearly pension of about $60,000.

The TRS confirmed that other school administrators continue to receive pensions even after committing serious crimes.

That includes Carolyn Foster, former chief financial officer for the Grand Prairie Independent School District, who was sentenced last year to three years in federal prison for embezzling $600,000 of taxpayer money.

Some of the cash was delivered to her in armored cars.

The federal judge who sentenced her made note of that and told her it was "…one of the worst cases, with the most amount of money I've seen, from a person in a position of trust."

The TRS also confirmed former El Paso school superintendent Lorenzo Garcia continues to receive a pension, despite serving time in federal prison for manipulating student test scores which increased his performance bonus.

Garcia, who also steered a $450,000 contract to his girlfriend's company, receives a pension of about $5,000 a month, court records show.

Foster declined an interview request, when reached in prison by NBC 5 Investigates, and Garcia's lawyer said his client would have nothing to say.

"They are violating every fiduciary responsibility, every moral responsibility, they have. And they should not be rewarded at the end of all of this with a pension," said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican.

During the last legislative session, Bettencourt helped pass a law that takes pensions from teachers convicted of sexual misconduct with students.

He said the same should happen to school administrators who swindle taxpayers.

"If you steal money of this magnitude from the state -- $600,000 embezzlement or take bribes of $3 million -- you (should be) on your own," Bettencourt said.

But Dallas lawyer Robert Clark, who is representing Sorrells in a civil case involving the financial crash of Dallas County Schools, said it would take a "glacial change in our society" to take pensions away from people like his client.

Clark said Sorrells is sorry for what happened, but remains entitled to his pension because he put money into it each time he received his paychecks as superintendent of DCS while taxpayers only provided matching contributions.

Taking away a pension would also punish other people more than the person who committed the crime, the lawyer said.

"Well, if somebody has a wife and children, (with) expenses, do we want as a society… do we want the people to be on welfare? Do we want them to be on the public dole?" Clark said.

But former employees at DCS told NBC 5 Investigates they were disgusted that Sorrells continued to receive a pension, even though the crime he committed cost them their jobs and cut off the pensions they had hoped for.

"Sickening," said Tim Jones, director of projects who had worked for DCS for 20 years.

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