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 takedowns of former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, has created a lynch mob-like fervor. Take away their pensions, the people demand. We agree.
If you violate the public’s trust, you should be barred from receiving a New York State pension.
Action is shamefully overdue. Nearly a dozen bills are pending in the State Legislature, showing both a desire for change and the difficulty of getting anything done.
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. A referendum on the ballot in November 2017 would win slam-dunk approval.
Optimism that this could happen is growing. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers are considering a raft of ethics reforms. The stars are aligning to get something done. But the details are critical. The constitutional amendment must:
- Cast a wide net. It should strip pensions from all elected and appointed officials at all levels of government — state, city, county, judiciary, school districts, etc. — convicted after its passage, but not 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. Judges should not be allowed to preserve part or all of a pension, to protect the so-called innocent spouse. 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 from the job held when the official committed the crime, not pensions from other jobs.
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. Pension-stripping must be 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 stripped pensions from anyone joining 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 all state employees convicted of felonies, with judicial discretion for spouses, passed the Senate but stalled in the Assembly after public labor unions expressed concern it would apply to all public employees.
Outrage has grown since, as Silver and Skelos were convicted and word emerged that their annual pensions combined likely would exceed $170,000. And theirs are not the most egregious cases. Former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi of Queens, for example, convicted in a pay-to-play scandal, receives a $126,314 annual state pension.
Such behavior is abominable. A constitutional change is needed to punish and deter. It’s simple: Betray the public, no longer get paid by the public. Do the crime, lose the pension.