State officials have taken a big step in the fight against public corruption, as the Legislature has approved a proposal to enact a constitutional amendment that would strip taxpayer-funded pensions from state and local leaders who commit felonies in connection with their office.
The pension forfeiture proposal will be on the ballot for a referendum held on Election Day, Nov. 7.
Enacting a constitutional amendment in New York state requires both the Senate and Assembly to pass the proposal in two consecutive sessions. Afterward, the proposal goes to voters to make the final decision.
“Overall, this has had great bipartisan support, and I think it will send an overwhelming message against corruption in government,” said state Assemblyman David Buchwald, a White Plains Democrat, who first proposed the legislation in May 2013. “This measure will cause high level public officials to think twice before they decide to do something corrupt.”
Elected officials, gubernatorial appointees, municipal managers, department heads, chief fiscal officers, judges, and several other policy-makers convicted of a felony, involving the breach of public trust, would all be subject to forfeiture of pension benefits.
If it were passed in November, the provision would only apply to officials who committed crimes on or after Jan. 1, 2018, succeeding the date of the constitutional amendment.
Currently, a public officer in New York state can accept bribes, steal public funds or engage in numerous other forms of public corruption without the threat of pension forfeiture, even if convicted.
Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, which is a statewide coalition that champions open, honest and accountable government, said, “Public officials who break the law shouldn’t get a taxpayer pension, period.”
In 2015, after then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, was arrested and later convicted of public corruption charges, he applied and was successfully granted his pension, which comes to $79,224 a year, according to the state comptroller’s office.
Silver was convicted on Nov. 30, 2015 of charges that included honest services fraud, money laundering and extortion, after serving as the head of the state Assembly since 1994. He is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence.
Former majority leader of the state Senate, Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, was also convicted on federal corruption charges, and was sentenced to five years in prison in December 2015. Skelos had served as the majority leader since 2011.
As many as 34 state and local officials have been convicted in New York since 2002 on charges including bribery, conspiracy, falsifying records, racketeering, fraud, extortion, federal corruption and perjury, among a mix of several other felonies and misdemeanors.
The only other state to exceed that number is Pennsylvania, which has seen 41 state and local officials imprisoned on similar charges since 2002.
“You would think that the threat of losing your job and paycheck, and the immense embarrassment from your community would be enough of a deterrent for these guys,” said state Sen. George Latimer, a Rye Democrat. “Hopefully now we’ll see better behavior. People just won’t tolerate corruption anymore; everybody’s on notice.”
With a tremendous amount of support for the bill, and with expectations that the legislation will pass with an overwhelming majority vote of the public, there are still a handful of individuals who oppose it, Buchwald said. Only four officials voted against the bill, including state Sens. Ruben Diaz, Kevin Parker, Diane Savino and Velmanette Montgomery, all Democrats representing areas in New York City.
“Some folks are still in total denial on how seriously corruption erodes public trust in government,” Buchwald said.