by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
A unanimous three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals has ruled against former Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick in her fight to maintain government retirement benefits.
Riddick pleaded guilty to six counts of embezzling money from Wake County taxpayers. Riddick, who ran Wake’s Register of Deeds office from 1997 t0 2017, agreed to repay $926,000 in embezzled funds as part of a 2018 plea deal. The plea also included five to seven years of active prison time.
While behind bars, Riddick has been battling with the N.C. State Treasurer’s office over retirement benefits. The treasurer ordered a return of $126,000 in benefits paid to Riddick after her early retirement in 2017. Riddick challenged the order, contending that she was entitled to keep the money under state law.
Much of Judge John Tyson’s opinion in the case deals with the correct way to calculate retirement benefits. But he also addresses the underlying issue of Riddick’s crimes.
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 128-38.4A serves an important governmental purpose in holding elected officials responsible and accountable for their illegal actions. This forfeiture provides additional deterrence beyond that offered by the criminal statutes. This remedy is “reasonable and necessary to serve an important government purpose.” A government or public employee being paid a taxpayer-funded salary must not benefit from their position to embezzle public taxpayer funds. In exchange for these benefits, the elected official also maintains obligations under the contract for retirement benefits. … To remain eligible for retirement benefits, Riddick mutually agreed and bore a duty to faithfully execute the duties of her office and to receive, hold, and account for all public funds entrusted to her, which she admittedly violated by pleading guilty to six (6) counts of embezzlement of over $100,000 each. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 128-38.4A does not unconstitutionally impair contracts under the Federal or State Constitutions. Riddick’s argument is overruled.