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Bills abound to deny pensions to convicted pols

Dean Skelos and his son Adam leaving Federal

Dean Skelos and his son Adam leaving Federal court house in Foley Square as jury found them both guilty in his Corruption case in Manhattan, Dec. 11, 2015. Credit: John Roca

ALBANY — If as many state legislators who say they want to deny pensions to public officials who are convicted of corruption had voted to do so, the hard-line measure might already be on the road to passage.

Instead, there are no fewer than 10 active bills with multiple sponsors, languishing in committees. Earlier versions have died in committee as far back as 2005.

The latest effort is by state Sen. Thomas Croci (R-Sayville). He introduced a bill last month to strip pensions from state and local public officials convicted of a felony if the crime is a “breach of public trust.” The bill would start a multiyear process of amending the state constitution, which now guarantees pensions to public workers.

“If you violate the public trust and are convicted of a felony, you must then forfeit a public pension,” Croci said. “A public officer has a duty to maintain this trust throughout their service, and taxpayers should not be expected to pay for the pension when that breach of good faith has occurred.”

Croci’s bill will join nine others awaiting places on agendas for Assembly and Senate committees beginning this month.

But this year may be different, said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

He noted the fallout from the federal corruption convictions last month of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), and said lawmakers up for re-election in November may find it hard to avoid adopting new ethics laws.

In August, Newsday reported that at least 13 former state elected officials who were convicted of corruption and other charges are eligible for pensions totaling more than $604,000 a year.

“Given the thick smog of scandal that has enveloped the Capitol, it seems likely lawmakers would tackle this issue as they contemplate facing the voters in November,” Horner said.

But before pensions could be denied, the Senate and Assembly will first have to agree on a single bill. All the current measures would all require convicted officials to lose their pensions. But most are worded differently, so passage would require further negotiations.

One bill that was the same in the Assembly and Senate last year never left the Assembly Judiciary Committee. It was sent to the attorney general’s office for legal analysis, and that review was sent to the committee April 8. Closed-door negotiations ensued with each side claiming they were pushing for a stronger bill.

The 2015 session ended in June without agreement after powerful public labor unions weighed in, saying they were concerned it would apply to all public workers, not just policymakers.

Concerns were also raised that the bill would unfairly hurt innocent spouses of legislators.

The legislature did get together two years ago to pass a pension forfeiture law. But that only applied to incoming legislators who joined the public pension system after Nov. 12, 2011. Currently, the pensions of more senior legislators, those in power such as Skelos and Silver were, can’t be denied.

Skelos filed for his pension on Dec. 22 and is in line for about $95,000 a year. His effective retirement date is Jan. 2.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has been tying public pensions into plea agreements and in sentences. He isn’t saying yet if he will try to deny pensions of Skelos and Silver, who is in line to collect more than $95,000 a year.

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