Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Only one day after his federal corruption conviction, Suffolk Conservative chairman Edward Walsh’s only solace last week may have been that New York State sent out his first pension check — albeit an estimated one — following his retirement after 25 years as a correction lieutenant.
But his conviction for getting paid for more than 1,500 hours of work time and another 1,000 hours of overtime when he was playing golf, gambling or politicking, raises new questions about the level of benefits to which he is entitled.
For the moment, the issues remain unsettled because federal prosecutors, who brought the case, could make restitution part of sentencing recommendations. But there are also likely to be decisions for state and local officials on recouping lost money.
Jennifer Freeman, spokeswoman for State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, said the state has not yet finalized Walsh’s pension benefit and has yet to receive data from other levels of government. “In short, it’s too early to say,” she said, but she expects “there will be a great deal of review of details.”
Freeman added the state “can adjust retirement benefits upon a showing that the reported earnings or service credits were incorrect or fraudulent.”
William Wexler, Walsh’s attorney, said he does not expect his client’s benefits to suffer. He said the county could not hold onto Walsh’s separation pay without a court order. He added that once retired, Walsh’s pension is a “vested property right” that cannot be altered. “Pensions are protected to prevent municipalities that undergo a change of regime from seeking retribution,” he said.
Locally, those questions center on whether the county can withhold what is popularly known as “scat pay” — money that workers can cash out at retirement for unused sick and vacation time — to recoup Walsh’s payments. Correction officers can collect as much as 18 weeks of vacation and 37 weeks of sick time, according to legislative budget analysts.
Two years, ago, former Comptroller Joseph Sawicki withheld separation pay from a correction officer who had been prosecuted before Walsh.
“Based on recent developments we will conduct an audit,” said Suffolk’s Chief Deputy Comptroller Louis Necroto, and its “outcome will determine the status of any funds to be . . . withheld or recovered.”
At the state level, one key issue is whether money that Walsh illegally collected should be discounted from income on which his pension is based, lowering his benefit. There’s also the question of whether the work hours that Walsh fraudulently claimed should be deducted from his time on the job needed to qualify for his pension.
What makes that issue crucial is that Walsh retired with 25 years and two weeks on the job. The 1,500 work hours that Walsh illegally claimed amounts to 40 weeks — more than nine months — which could make his time short of what is needed to qualify for his pension.
Walsh, who is 50, also retired under a provision of state law approved especially for Suffolk correction officers, which permits officers to retire at half pay at any age as long as they have worked 25 years. Without the 25 years, Walsh would not be allowed to collect his pension until age 62 without suffering large penalties.
Paul Sabatino, former chief county deputy county executive, said there is court precedent for the state comptroller to act to protect assets of the pension fund. In light of the Walsh case, he said, “There is more than a reasonable basis for him to exercise his power.”