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In New York, Corrupt Lawmakers May Soon Have to Forfeit Pensions

A ballot measure would allow judges to strip pensions from corrupt public servants. But ethics watchdogs say the measure is little more than window dressing.

Former New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, left, and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver were both separately convicted on corruption charges, but continue to draw pensions.
(AP/Mike Groll)
This story is part of our elections coverage. Read our list of the most important races and ballot measures to watch here.

When former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted on corruption charges in federal court nearly two years ago, one of the first things he did was put in for his $6,602-a-month pension. Former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos did the exact same thing after he was convicted of corruption just a few weeks later. His monthly pension check is reportedly nearly $8,000.

New York has a law on the books that requires public servants to forfeit their pensions if they are convicted of a job-related crime. But like many states in the country, the law is filled with loopholes. Sponsored in 2011 by Skelos and passed nearly unanimously, the law exempts everyone who voted for it because it only applies to people who started their jobs in 2012. (That’s not the only legal loophole Silver and Skelos exploited; both of their convictions were overturned on a technicality.)

Now, a ballot measure seeks to close that loophole. Proposition 2, largely driven by outrage over the Silver and Skelos scandals, would give judges the right to trim or revoke the pensions of any public servant convicted of a job-related crime. “It is perverse that taxpayers’ money would support officials found guilty of committing a felony against the taxpayers,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in his 2016 State of the State address.

Ethics watchdogs generally applaud the measure. But the New York Public Interest Research Group’s Executive Director Blair Horner notes that the proposition wouldn’t stop all convicted former public servants from receiving their pensions. That's because, much like the 2011 law, the proposition only applies to anyone convicted of a job-related crime occurring on or after Jan. 1, 2018.

In other words, the 15 convicted ex-lawmakers in the state (excluding Silver and Skelos) who receive a combined $600,000 annually in state pension payments, would be unaffected. “In classic Albany fashion,” says Horner, “it’s purported to act on those scandals and yet it’s done in such a way that would have no effect on them.”

Most states allow for pensions to be revoked when a public official or employee is convicted of a job-related felony. In Florida, Maryland and Oklahoma, for example, public servants can lose their pension if they’re convicted of any felony. Maryland officials can also lose their pension if they’re convicted of a misdemeanor related to official duties. West Virginia has perhaps the broadest law: Pensions of public officials or employees can be revoked if service is deemed "less than honorable."

But 19 states have no pension forfeiture laws on the books.

In New York, no public official has spoken out against the proposed amendment. And the idea has consistently had strong public support. A Siena Research Institute poll last year showed 84 percent of New Yorkers supported withholding pensions from lawmakers convicted of public corruption crimes.

Still, Horner argues the state could go a lot further in its ethics crackdown. Proposals such as limiting outside income or capping donations from interest groups would be a good start. Unfortunately, he says, they are perennial failures in Albany. His group has advocated for a more independent ethics watchdog (as opposed to a potentially politically motivated controller or attorney general) similar to what’s done in Hawaii. In the Aloha State, the governor selects new members for the five-member state ethics commission from a list compiled by an independent judicial panel. In New York, the 14-members on the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics are all appointed by elected officials.

“The state taxpayers spend millions to have watchdogs,” says Horner. “They should be independent.”

This story is part of our elections coverage. Read our list of the most important races and ballot measures to watch here.

Liz Farmer, a former Governing staff writer covering fiscal policy, helps lead the Pew Charitable Trusts’ state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource.
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