Freshmen lawmakers push for corrupt pols to lose their pensions

Assemb. Charles Lavine, seen during a conference call

Assemb. Charles Lavine, seen during a conference call on Nov. 7, 2013, supports an initiative to deny state pension money to elected officials who are forced out of office over corruption. (Credit: Barry Sloan)

ALBANY -- Freshmen state legislators are leading the latest effort to deny public pensions to all state and local politicians forced from office for taking bribes, stealing or other corruption.

"No matter how serious the offense, current law still assures most public employees that their state pensions cannot be challenged," said Assemblyman David Buchwald (D-White Plains). "Now more than ever we need to act."

"It seems fair to me and it seems fair to the public," said Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove).

Lavine is one of the veteran Assembly members who joined the effort last week and a critical one, because he is chairman of the Assembly Ethics and Guidance Committee.

The bill, with more than 60 supporters, seeks a change in the state constitution, which guarantees public pensions to qualified public workers. A constitutional amendment requires adoption by two sitting legislatures in different years and public approval in a referendum.

After that, the legislature could pass a law to require the pensions be forfeited upon conviction of a felony.

A year ago, Sen. Tim Kennedy (D-Buffalo) pushed a similar bill. He said taxpayers pay nearly $600,000 a year for pensions for former politicians imprisoned or forced out of office for misconduct. He said the state spent $4.3 million since 1999 in pension costs for 14 state officials who left office in disgrace.

"Decency dictates that tax dollars should not indefinitely support the well-being of lawmakers who violate their office," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY. "Honest people have nothing to fear."

Last year, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara supported the idea, saying "convicted politicians should not grow old comfortably cushioned by a pension paid for by the very people they betrayed in office." He said about 30 public officials have been snared in corruption cases in the past seven years.

For example, state records show former Sen. Pedro Espada (D-Bronx), who was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the health care center he founded, receives $612.14 a month in a state pension. Former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who was sentenced to prison for a scandal involving the state pension fund for which he was sole trustee, is paid $8,843.45 a month dating to his days as a Democratic legislator and college professor.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said 22 states have laws regarding forfeiture of state pensions when officials are convicted of certain crimes, although there are various exceptions.

The state ethics law passed in 2011 already requires officials elected after 2011 to lose their pensions if they are convicted of a felony. That excludes the vast majority of state legislators. But most freshmen supporting the new bill are also exempt under the 2011 ethics law because they were already in the pension system through previous local government jobs.

"When an elected official is sworn into office, he or she must sign a solemn oath stating that they will uphold the laws and the Constitution," said state Sen. Neil Breslin, a Democrat from Delmar in the Albany area, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate. "It is critical that we enact a law that applies to all public officials. The public deserves nothing less."

Breslin is another veteran legislator, but he sits in a majority that has difficulty getting bills to the floor that is controlled by a coalition of Republicans and the Independent Democratic Conference.

There was no immediate comment from the majority coalition.

Opposition to past proposals has included a concern that the families of convicted politicians would suffer under the loss of the household's pension.

"That would apply to anyone who is convicted of a crime," Lavine said. "The question is, where do we draw the line? And given that we can see not only in New York State but nationally far too many of these elected officials in violation of the public trust, we can no longer stand idly by. We need to take a proactive stance."

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