Frank Tassone earns $1.05 a day working as a porter at the Mid-State Correctional Facility in Oneida. Cleaning toilets and shower stalls, he is far from his comfortable days as the superintendent of the Roslyn school district, where he enjoyed lavish meals on the taxpayers, gambling junkets and frequent conferences in such playgrounds as Las Vegas.
But Tassone, 61, needn't worry about having enough spending money for the prison commissary. In spite of his conviction for stealing $2.2 million from the school district, which put him behind bars for 4 to 12 years, Tassone can count on his annual New York State pension of $173,495 arriving at regular intervals in his bank account. He gets that in monthly installments of $14,457.92.
And, New York State law being what it is, he'll continue to get that public pension for the rest of his life.
"It is unconscionable that a guy like Frank Tassone can collect a six-figure income while he's in jail for stealing from his employer," said E.J. McMahon, a pension expert from the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a pro-business think tank in Albany.
State records show that Tassone is one of the top 20 pension earners among school administrators in the state. And as a felon collecting a generous state pension, he is not alone.
Four of a kind
Pamela Gluckin, the Roslyn schools' former business official who admitted to stealing $4.3 million from the district, continues to get her $54,998 annual pension while she serves a 3-to-9-year prison sentence at Albion Correctional Facility near the Canadian border. As part of Gluckin's plea agreement, she sends half of that amount directly to Roslyn toward her restitution.
Even though former William Floyd school district treasurer James A. Wright pleaded guilty to stealing about $777,000 from the district, he still collects an annual pension of $142,807. Former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who pleaded guilty to a felony for misusing state personnel by having them drive his wife around and perform other family chores, keeps his annual pension of $104,123.
Like Tassone, all of them will receive these funds for the rest of their lives.
These felons benefit from a New York State constitutional guarantee that says if a public employee is entitled to a state pension for his or her years of service those retirement benefits cannot be diminished or taken away, even after a felony conviction. Unlike several other states, New York has no statute providing for the forfeiture of pension benefits if someone is convicted of a crime.
Several attempts by Republican lawmakers to change that to allow forfeiture of pensions for public officials convicted of crimes have for years gone nowhere in the State Legislature in Albany as employee unions have fought against them, experts say.
"I don't think, when you violate the public's trust while you're in public office, that you should be rewarded with a very generous pension system, primarily provided by the taxpayers of New York State, the very people you violated," said Assemb. Daniel Burling (R, C, I-Warsaw), the sponsor of one of three pending pension reform bills.
"It's absolutely scandalous," said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union in Alexandria, Va. "It's a crime committed twice on the people of New York. The public trust has been broken; now the public purse has been broken, too."
Unlike federal Social Security checks, pension checks can be deposited directly into an inmate's prison account so that the inmate can pay restitution, court fees or child support, state corrections officials say. They can also use the money for biweekly purchases in the prison commissary, where they buy items such as socks, soap and reading material.
In addition to Tassone and Gluckin, three other district employees or vendors were jailed for their involvement in the $11-million Roslyn scandal that spanned a decade and included stolen funds spent on home mortgages, furnishings, vacations, jewelry and artwork.
Districts still paying
Tassone made full restitution - $2,213,257 - to the school district by March 2007, just 18 months after he pleaded guilty. State officials wouldn't say where Tassone's pension check is sent.
Meanwhile, Roslyn school district officials said they will pay about $7,037 this year for Tassone's health insurance benefits, which he also will collect for the rest of his life. Tassone's portion is about $710 a year.
"To think that Frank Tassone and Pam Gluckin continue to receive their pensions and in a few years will have paid their debt to society and will then enjoy the benefit of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year paid by the taxpayers of Roslyn and the State of New York for the rest of their lives makes me sick," said Bill Costigan, former Roslyn school board president.
Tassone is eligible for parole in 2010. If he behaves in jail, and continues his participation in anger management training, he can shave eight months and four days from the minimum time he has to serve, moving up his parole date.
Gluckin, 62, also earns $1.05 a day working as a clerk in the chaplain services department of the all-women's prison. She still owes more than $2 million in restitution, records show. District officials say they receive a check for $2,050 every month from Gluckin, who has paid back $1,914,994. At that rate, it will take her an estimated 100 years to pay back the money she stole.
If she successfully completes her prison program, which includes daily therapy sessions, she can shorten her sentence by six months and three days. She's eligible for parole in September 2009.
The school district will have paid about $6,646 this year toward Gluckin's health benefits. Her portion is $38.49 a month, or $461.88 for 2008.
District officials said that neither Tassone nor Gluckin has missed a payment.
"Their positions gave them the ability to steal millions of dollars from the taxpayers and then they get rewarded with a pension for the rest of their lives?" said Assemb. Thomas McKevitt (R-East Meadow). "I think that in the private sector nothing like that will ever occur."
Neither Tassone nor Gluckin could be reached for comment.
Gluckin's attorney did not return calls. Tassone's attorney, Edward Jenks, when asked about Tassone's pension said simply, "It's automatic."
Why it happended
A New York State public official who pleads guilty to a felony while in office can be stripped of that position.
But that official can't lose his pension.
Unlike at least half a dozen states that have enacted new laws or constitutional amendments to bar public employees convicted of felonies related to their offices from receiving state pensions, New York does not bar felons from collecting pensions.
The New York State constitution guarantees that promised public employee retirement benefits cannot be diminished or taken away. Nor are they subject to state taxes.
Statutes in Illinois, Georgia and Pennsylvania mandate pension forfeiture whenever a public employee is convicted of any felony relating to his public service. Pennsylvania's law punishes some misdemeanor offenders with pension forfeiture. In Georgia, a drug conviction can bar an employee from getting his or her state pension.
Texas law states that no person sentenced to a prison term can receive a state pension.
In the New York State Legislature, pension reform bills are languishing in committees. One is a constitutional amendment that would allow authorities to take away the pension of elected public officers convicted of a felony. A second bill would apply to all public employees, not just elected officials.
State Assemb. Nancy Calhoun (R-Orange County), one of that bill's co-sponsors, said, "It should be known that if you steal from the public, you do not continue to eat at the trough while you're in prison after being convicted. It's just morally wrong."
It's not the first time state officials have tried to make that change. After a 1994 Newsday series exposed abuses within the police disability pension system, former state Comptroller Carl McCall aggressively pursued pension reforms. He failed.
WHAT THEY DID
Ex-Roslyn business official
Stole $4.3 million
Sentence 3 to 9 years
Pension $54,998 a year for life
Stole $2.2 million
Sentence 4 to 12 years
Pension $173,495 a year for life