Voters will cast ballots next week on a statewide amendment to the state constitution that would cast a wider net against corrupt elected officials, allowing judges to cut or do away with their state pensions.
But the measure, if passed, would have no impact on Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota or his deputy Christopher McPartland, if they’re found guilty of federal charges of helping cover up the beating of a burglary suspect by ex-Suffolk Police Chief James Burke. Spota and McPartland are each charged with four counts, including obstruction of justice.
The measure has nothing to do with Spota’s announcement the day after his indictment that he is filing for retirement because it isn’t retroactive. Even if voters approve the proposition, it will only affect state and local officials who commit felony crimes, directly connected to their official duties, starting Jan. 1.
Assemb. David Buchwald (D-White Plains), the bill’s prime sponsor, said he has pressed for the reform since he first took office in 2013.
That preceded indictments of former Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) on federal corruption charges in 2015.
“The bill had a lot of bipartisan support, but it never got to the floor for a vote,” Buchwald said.
But public outrage, palpable after Silver’s and Skelos’ convictions, fueled the passage of the proposed amendment twice through the State Legislature in 2016 and 2017, as required, so it could be put before voters Nov. 7.
Buchwald says the proposition goes as far as the state can go “given the constraints of the U.S. Constitution . . . You can’t pass a law ex post facto that increases penalties for a crime committed in the past.”
That means no matter how the proposition fares, Skelos will continue to collect a $95,832-a-year pension and Silver his $79,224 annual pension even if federal prosecutors successfully retry both men. Their convictions were thrown out on appeal over faulty instructions to jurors.
Burke — convicted of federal obstruction and civil rights charges — also will continue to collect his $145,485 annual pension as he sits in federal prison.
Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Research Group, acknowledges that establishment of a state constitutional convention, also up for voter approval next week, could not do anything further to revoke pensions retroactively based on past crimes. But Horner said a convention might set up independent government agencies insulated from political pressures that could “bite as well as bark.”
Nonetheless, the proposed pension amendment, if successful, would broaden the universe of officials whose pensions could be revoked.
It would expand the Public Integrity Reform Act, which only impacted officials who joined the pension system after the law was enacted five years ago. That measure was limited by constraints in the state constitution that do not permit any reduction of benefits for those already in the state government pension system.
Buchwald should get credit for the reform said Horner, who noted that loss of a pension can affect convicted officials for decades, while a prison term often lasts only a few years.
“You’d think that an orange jumpsuit would be more of a deterrent than losing your pension, but that turns out not be the case,” said Horner. “That’s because no one in Albany thought they would ever get caught.”