A prominent federal attorney told an anti-corruption panel Tuesday that he will do what state lawmakers have failed to do: seek to take away the public pensions of New York politicians convicted of corruption charges.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has indicted several state and local lawmakers this spring in high-profile cases, said targeting pensions was "common sense." He told the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which was launched by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo earlier this year, that "public corruption . . . appears rampant" in New York and that he wasn't waiting on the state to take action.
"The common-sense principle is a simple one: Convicted politicians should not grow old comfortably cushioned by a pension paid for by the very people they betrayed in office," Bharara said.
"So, my office has adopted a new set of policies. First, going forward, we will seek appropriate fines that take into account the money a corrupt official might derive from a publicly funded pension so that the punishment fits the crime and so that we can take the profit out of that crime."
"Second, for those defendants previously convicted and who have failed to satisfy the financial obligations imposed at sentencing, we will consider federal civil forfeiture actions against their pensions to satisfy criminal judgments," Bharara continued. "And finally, in pending and future cases, to the extent any public official has a pension interest that accrued while engaging in criminal conduct, we will use federal forfeiture law to claw back an appropriate dollar amount commensurate with that pension, where appropriate."
In two pending corruption cases, Bharara said his office filed court papers Tuesday to include pensions as part of the property defendants would have to forfeit if convicted in a state corruption case. One case accuses Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) and others of trying to rig the New York City mayoral primary; the other alleges that Assemb. Eric Stevenson (D-Bronx) proposed legislation to protect adult day-care businesses in exchange for bribes.
Earlier in the day, Bill Samuels, a co-founder of Effective NY, urged the commission to investigate millions of dollars in campaign contributions by businesses that use limited liability corporations to effectively evade donation limits.
Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center of New York University said the commission should focus on more than a dozen targeted tax breaks -- for real estate, film and other businesses -- that "consistently" generate campaign contributions. He said donors regularly give contributions just before a tax break is slated to expire and just after it is renewed by lawmakers.
Cuomo created the panel after the Legislature rejected a plan he offered that would have given the governor power to appoint a counsel specifically to investigate election-law violations, among other things. Cuomo had threatened to convene the panel, using the state's Moreland Act, if lawmakers didn't pass anti-corruption measures. Tuesday's hearing was the first of several the commission will hold. Preliminary recommendations are expected in December.