Little provokes more passion among New Yorkers than the recurring spectacle of corrupt public officials keeping their lucrative pensions.
A stream of convictions, capped by the one-two takedown of former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, has created a fervor like that of a lynch mob seeking frontier justice. Take away their pensions, the people demand. We agree.
If you violate the public’s trust, and put your interests ahead of your constituents, you should be barred from receiving a New York State pension.
The latest outcry is not new. Action is shamefully overdue. Nearly a dozen bills, the most recent filed by Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville), are pending in the State Legislature. The number shows both a desire for change and the difficulty of getting anything done on this issue.
Wording variations must be reconciled. Legislators, some of whom have been disgracefully content to keep the system as it is, must agree on which crimes are punishable and whose pensions could be stripped. And targeting sitting public officials means amending the state constitution, which guarantees pensions even against criminal conviction.
Legislation must be passed in two consecutive sessions and approved in a statewide public referendum. This legislature is in the second and final year of its current session. It must pass a bill now so the second passage can occur next year, after a new legislature is elected in November. That would put the referendum on the ballot in November 2017 — and it would win slam-dunk approval.
Optimism that this could happen is growing. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo included pension-stripping in his State of the State address. Lawmakers are considering a raft of ethics reforms. The stars are aligning to get something done. But the details are critical.
We propose a constitutional amendment that would:
- Cast a wide net. It would strip pensions from all elected and appointed officials at all levels of government — state, county, town, city, village, judiciary, school districts, and other special districts — convicted after its passage. It would not include civil service or collective-bargaining positions.
- Define punishable crimes broadly, as any felony connected to someone’s service as a public official.
- Reject judicial discretion. Some proposals call for judges to decide whether to strip a pension, in full or in part, to protect the so-called innocent spouse. But knowing your spouse will suffer if you do wrong is a powerful deterrent. And a clever defense attorney could drive a payloader through this loophole.
- Strip only the pension earned from the job the official held when he or she committed the crime. Pensions earned from other jobs would remain intact.
There will be wrinkles to iron out, and likely legal challenges. That’s OK. The bottom line is that our government must be cleaned up. Miscreants can find ways around other proposed reforms. Make pension-stripping ironclad.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has been trying to seize pensions via fines and by using federal forfeiture provisions applicable in criminal cases. He shouldn’t have to go through a back door. Let’s open the front door. Wide.
In 2011, the legislature passed a pension forfeiture law, but only for those who joined the pension system after Nov. 12, 2011. Veterans such as Silver and Skelos were not covered. Last year, after both were charged, an agreement to strip pensions from all state employees convicted of felonies, with judicial discretion for spouses, passed the Senate, but it stalled in the Assembly after public labor unions expressed concern that it would apply to all public employees.
Outrage has grown since, as Silver and Skelos were convicted and word emerged last week that Silver’s annual pension would be $79,222. And his situation is not the most egregious case:
n The pension for Skelos, convicted with his son last month on eight counts of extortion, bribery and conspiracy, is expected to be worth $95,000 a year.
, receives a $126,314 annual state pension.
n Frank Tassone, the former Roslyn schools superintendent, was convicted of stealing $2.2 million from the district but collects a pension of $175,295.
Such behavior is abominable. A constitutional change is needed, as punishment and deterrent. It’s simple: Betray the public, you no longer get paid by the public. Do the crime, lose the pension.