ALBANY – Democratic incumbent Thomas DiNapoli said in Monday’s comptroller's race debate that his steady hand over a tumultuous decade in which he guided the massive state worker pension system to one of the nation’s strongest is reason to re-elect him, while Republican challenger Jonathan Trichter called for a new, objective set of eyes on Albany and questioned DiNapoli’s competence and independence.
The statewide televised debate for the office that often gets little attention from voters flared with several conflicts as Trichter said that if he ran the pension system he could save hundreds of millions of dollars in fees paid to outside consultants and be a better check-and-balance on Democrats who now control the governor’s office and half the Legislature.
“The reality is, when you compare our performance to the peers … we do as good or better,” said DiNapoli, 64, a former assemblyman from Great Neck Plaza, referring to national independent reports. “That’s why our pension is viewed as one of the strongest in the county.”
The comptroller is the sole trustee of the $200 billion pension that serves more than 1 million government workers and retirees.
Trichter, 47, of Manhattan has worked in private sector finance that included helping restore the strength of failed pensions. He said DiNapoli’s investment return over his tenure have been around 6 percent, despite a goal of 7.5 percent in a period that included the Great Recession which ran from 2007 to 209 followed by a slow recovery. When the pension fund investments are lower, the difference in the cost of paying out public pensions comes from local and state governments and that can result in higher local taxes.
“You’re not outperforming anyone,” Trichter said, comparing the state pension to several other states’ funds. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Trichter also said DiNapoli failed to use his audit powers to stave off corruption scandals in the Cuomo administration’s economic development projects, including the Buffalo Billion enterprise that resulted in the conviction of two of Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s long time associates and aides. Cuomo wasn’t accused of wrongdoing.
“Your audits missed them,” Trichter said.
DiNapoli noted that Cuomo and the State Legislature eliminated some of his pre-audit power, which may have caught corruption before it happened or dissuaded people from risking the chance of getting caught. DiNapoli has fought to recover that power, but the Assembly and Cuomo opposed it.
“I would fight like hell to get them back,” Trichter said. “I would gum up the works until I got that power back.” That effort would include holding up a technical approval of the state budget as leverage, Trichter said.
Trichter also criticized DiNapoli for failing for uncover services and safety problems in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. DiNapoli responded by noting the MTA held up his 2018 report as a “clarion call” on how to fix the MTA.
“I read your 2018 report,” Trichter said. “It was great. The problem is you should have come out with it in 2014.”
DiNapoli said the MTA failed to heed several previous warnings in dozens of past reports and audits.
The most heated exchange happened when Trichter recalled a 2014 sexual harassment settlement in which $103,000 was paid to women who had accused Democratic Assemb. Vito Lopez. The settlement negotiated by then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) was once secret and DiNapoli said his staff played a minor role to make sure the victims were compensated.
“You have never apologized for your role in that cover-up,” Trichter said, calling the settlement “hush money … I wouldn’t authorize them.” He said he would have exposed the accused legislator.
“I’m not going to gum up the works, especially if the victims don’t want it,” DiNapoli said of his decision not to make the settlement public. “I’m not going to expose a victim just to score some cheap political points.”