ANNAPOLIS – Former Gov. Harry R. Hughes will not get all the pension money he thought was due him, a state court said Tuesday.
The Maryland Court of Appeals, voting 5-2, agreed with a 1978 state retirement agency ruling that Hughes could not collect a state pension while he served as Maryland’s governor.
The court ruled that the suspension of Hughes’ pension during his two terms as governor was handled properly. “We believe that the agency’s interpretation of [the law] follows a logical and common sense approach to the language of the statute,” Judge Howard Chasanow wrote in the majority opinion.
The ruling ends an eight-year quest by Hughes. Both an administrative law judge and the Baltimore City Circuit Court previously had ruled against the former governor.
“I think it’s clear that the attorney general and the retirement board looked at the claims very seriously a number of times,” said Assistant Attorney General Carmen Shepard, who represented the state. “We’re pleased that the court agreed with the board’s findings.”
John F.X. O’Brien, Hughes’ lawyer, said he had not read the court’s ruling. But he added, “It was obviously a tough issue for the court, and it troubled the [circuit] judge below. But the court has spoken, and we will abide by the judges’ ruling.”
Hughes, 68, now a Baltimore attorney, collects an annual pension of at least $84,000, state officials said earlier this year. Following Hughes’ 1977 retirement as Maryland’s secretary of transportation, he was eligible for a pension based on his 22 years of service in the House of Delegates, the State Senate and the Department of Transportation.
The dispute is over a 1947 Maryland law allowing early retirement under the Employees’ Retirement System, or ERS. It provides that “should a beneficiary be appointed or elected to any office … his retirement allowance shall cease.”
Hughes’ attorneys argued that he was a member of a separate gubernatorial pension plan during his term in office. Also, because the governor was excluded from the pension’s definition of a system employee, they claimed, Hughes was exempted from the law.
But Chasanow wrote that while “there was no set policy regarding the receipt of a pension and a salary … we find that, as the [Baltimore City] circuit court noted, the state of Maryland has generally indicated an `intent that double-dipping be discouraged’.”
“Double dipping,” or collecting both a pension and a salary from the state simultaneously, was opposed by Hughes while he was governor.
In the dissenting opinion, Judge Robert Bell wrote that the pension law’s language was ambiguous in defining how the governor was covered. -30-