No pensions for corrupt politicians? That's common sense

Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the southern

Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, holds a press conference in the lobby of the office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan on April 4, 2013. (Credit: Charles Eckert)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Federal judges are not necessarily bound by New York State rules when it comes to determining whether public officials convicted of felonies should lose their state pensions, according to experts quoted in a Newsday story last week.

That could mean success for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's efforts to target the pensions of state and New York City lawmakers indicted on corruption charges.

In recent testimony before a panel created by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to investigate public corruption, Bharara noted a complaint voiced frequently on Long Island whenever convicted public officials are allowed to keep generous pensions.

"The common-sense principle is a simple one," Bharara told the panel. "Convicted politicians should not grow old comfortably cushioned by a pension paid for by the very people they betrayed in office."

His view makes sense.

There are plentiful convicted felons, involved in everything from the drug trade to organized crime, who forfeit so-called ill-gotten gains.

Why should corrupt public officials get a bye?

On Long Island in recent years, officials including a town supervisor, county lawmakers and a school superintendent quit before their convictions -- and still kept their pensions.

Cuomo, asked about Bharara's comments to the commission, sounded skeptical. He said he had considered adding penalties to target pensions as part of a 2011 package of ethics legislation.

But such a move would be unconstitutional under state law.

So why not change state law?

To get that done, according to experts in the Newsday report, Cuomo would have to persuade state lawmakers to change the constitution.

But so far, there's been no call to do so.

That should change.

The prospect of losing pensions could become a powerful deterrent. It would stop the game of public officials stepping down just so they could preserve their pensions.

Besides, most Long Island corruption cases are handled by local rather than federal authorities.

Should Bharara be successful in targeting pensions for convicted public officials on the federal level, those tried and convicted on the local level would be treated differently.

Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice is a member of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. What's her view on targeting pensions?

"She supports public officials losing their pensions when they are convicted of a felony related to their job and she has said as much in the past," a spokesman said Friday.

In Suffolk, a spokesman said District Attorney Thomas Spota, who is up for re-election next month, supported the notion of convicted public officials losing their pensions, too.

As Bharara said, it's common sense.