By Mark Niesse

By pleading guilty, Atlanta educators who admitted cheating on standardized tests not only avoided prison time; they also escaped the reach of a law meant to reduce the pensions of government employees who commit crimes on the job.

The 18 teachers and principals who have struck plea deals with prosecutors will keep their full pensions as long as they fulfill their sentences. The remaining 16 defendants' retirement money would be in jeopardy if they go on trial and are found guilty.

While Georgia's pension law has been used against city and county employees who steal or take bribes, it hasn't targeted educators who faced criminal charges for changing students' test answers.

The law calls for reducing public employees' pensions by three times the amount of economic impact of the crime -- in this case, the bonus pay the cheating brought them for meeting academic goals.

While most educators' bonuses didn't exceed a total of $5,000 between 2005 and 2009, prosecutors allege former Superintendent Beverly Hall received about $500,000 in bonus money.

The educators who confessed guilt will be in the clear once they serve between 250 and 1,000 hours of community service, repay between $500 and $5,000 in bonus money, complete up to two years of probation and testify against their superiors. As first-time offenders, they'll avoid having convictions on their records if they complete their sentences.

The defendants also lost their jobs, and the Georgia Professional Standards Commission recommended their teaching licenses be suspended or revoked. Most are appealing sanctions on their licenses.

"I do think the public humiliation, the exposure to that kind of scrutiny and the public demeaning is more than adequate punishment," said attorney Bruce Harvey, who represents former Venetian Hills Elementary Principal Clarietta Davis, who pleaded guilty Jan. 6.

In exchange for guilty pleas, prosecutors agreed to reduce racketeering and false-statement charges to obstruction or other crimes that aren't covered by the pension law.

Among the three principals who have admitted cheating, two of their plea agreements specifically carve out exemptions from the pension law, although their lawyers doubted they would have been affected by it anyway. The third principal, Lucious Brown of Kennedy Middle School, pleaded guilty to felony interference with government property, which isn't one of the offenses the pension law applies to.

Parents of Atlanta students said they didn't want teachers going to prison, but they had different opinions whether their punishment should affect retirement benefits.

"I have no issue with them losing part of their pension," said Beth Hamilton, the mother of a third- and a fifth-grader at Bolton Academy. "These are college-educated professionals who were entrusted with children, and they made a choice. They didn't fulfill their obligation."

Erica Long, the mother of a kindergartner at Perkerson Elementary, said she was glad those who cheated won't be able to teach again, but they shouldn't have to forfeit pensions.

"People who decide to teach aren't doing it to become rich. I don't think this was about money or any type of ill-gotten gain," Long said.

The plea bargains help prosecutors, who plan to ask those educators to testify against top administrators, including Hall and her lieutenants. The agreements require those who have pleaded guilty to cooperate.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard referred questions about pensions to the attorney general's office, which cited four examples when the law had been applied against government employees since 2011.

"The pleas involving defendants charged in the Atlanta Public Schools case are well-known and have been publicly documented," Howard said in a statement. "Our efforts have been directed toward criminal conduct."

Former Gideons Elementary Principal Armstead Salters wanted to ensure his pension would be preserved before pleading guilty, said his attorney, J. Lansing Kimmey. Salters' plea agreement includes a section in which prosecutors acknowledge that as a first-time offender, if Salters completes his sentence, his guilty plea wouldn't count as a conviction and he wouldn't be affected by Georgia's pension law.

"Of course, that was a big consideration," Kimmey said, noting that the pension law wouldn't have covered Salters anyway since he had been an employee since 1966, nearly 20 years before the law was created in 1985. The pension language was included in the plea agreement "out of an abundance of caution," he said.

Jeffrey Ezell, executive director for the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia, said he's not aware of the pension law ever being used against educators in his 30 years with the pension system. "To be honest, I haven't seen any situation where this law has had to come into play," Ezell said.

The law more frequently affects local government employees who take taxpayer money, said Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association.

"The premise is that in cases of financial fraud and embezzlement, that you should not be able to benefit," Henderson said. "You've already taken the money illegally, so you should not be able to get more money from the government" during retirement.

More plea agreements with some of the remaining 16 defendants may be reached soon. Prosecutors have said four or five have been in plea negotiations, and Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter set a Feb. 17 deadline to enter negotiated pleas.

A trial of the former educators who maintain their innocence could begin as soon as late April.

(c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution