In Albany, outside jobs from pets to funerals

Once upon a time in Albany, or so the Capitol’s origin story goes, the men who governed New York sta
Stephen Katz, a Republican New York State assemblyman and veterinarian, talks with Uriel Ferrell, left, while examining his dog Lola, with help from assistant Yasmine Rodriquez, at Katz's Bronx Veterinary Center in New York, Dec. 30, 2015.
Stephen Katz, a Republican New York State assemblyman and veterinarian, talks with Uriel Ferrell, left, while examining his dog Lola, with help from assistant Yasmine Rodriquez, at Katz's Bronx Veterinary Center in New York, Dec. 30, 2015.

Once upon a time in Albany, or so the Capitol’s origin story goes, the men who governed New York state from the Legislature’s vaulted chambers were farmers: citizen-legislators, who laid down their plows for a few months every year to represent their fellows before returning home to make their living from the land.

The modern version is less pastoral parable, more “American Hustle.” The list of lawyers, insurers and full-time politicians in the Legislature is long; the farmer count stands at zero; and outside income, as the money earned from non-Legislature work is known, is at the crux of the corruption scandal that toppled the former speaker of the state Assembly in November, as well as many scandals to afflict the state capital before that.

It is difficult, then, to know what to make of those legislators who, if not precisely the salt of the earth, hold jobs that do not seem ripe for payola, either. The Finger Lakes undertaker, for instance. The owner of a dry-cleaning business outside Buffalo. The assemblyman who for his 25 years in the Legislature has moonlighted as a one-man auction house in Cazenovia, New York, selling antique silverware, chickens and farm machinery.

“I’m living the dream right now,” Assemblyman Stephen M. Katz said on a recent morning, before striding into an examination room at his veterinary hospital in the Bronx to tend to a Shih Tzu with a corneal ulcer. “And then I come back to the nightmare of Albany.”

Among reformers, who say serving two masters can breed conflicts of interest that are rarely resolved in the public’s favor, there may not be two words more foul than “outside income.”

The twin corruption trials in which Sheldon Silver, the former Democratic Assembly speaker, and Dean G. Skelos, the former Republican Senate majority leader, were convicted have staggered political outsiders with their revelations of fudged disclosure forms, campaign-finance loopholes and other Albanyisms, and underscored an article of faith held from the governor’s office on down: To clean up Albany, cap or eradicate outside income.

Some good-government advocates have gone even further, suggesting that the Legislature, a part-time institution that pays its members $79,500 a year, should become a full-time commitment with a commensurate salary.

Yet the hue and cry over ethics reform has also uncovered a little-known, little-heeded point of view: that of the businessman-legislator, who sees no conflict between activities like undertaking and lawmaking, and whose contempt for Albany makes a full-time Legislature seem not only ludicrous, but also outrageous.

“You can’t tell someone to give up your lifelong business to be a two-year legislator,” said Assemblyman David DiPietro, a Republican from the Buffalo area who has run his family’s dry-cleaning business, Sparkle One Hour Cleaners, since 1990, and who has recently begun organizing for the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. “That’s against the law, against the Constitution.”

DiPietro, who earned $20,000 to $50,000 from dry-cleaning in 2014, said his experience as a small-business owner informed his work on the Assembly’s small business committee and his support for business-friendly legislation. “And to go after us is counterproductive, because we all know where the fix is,” he said.

Katz, a Westchester County Republican whose Bronx Veterinary Center professes to offer “Park Avenue Care at Webster Avenue Prices,” was equally unenthusiastic about the prospect of a full-time Legislature. He earned $100,000 to $150,000 from his practice in 2014, according to financial disclosure forms.

“This is the most disgusting … ,” Katz said, appearing to swell with fury as he began to describe his legislative colleagues. “They don’t do two months’ worth of work, and they have the gall to ask for a full year and a raise.” Katz was equally uncomplimentary about their ethical standards (“chickens, cowards and pieces of garbage”).

A few hours at his veterinary practice, which he took up after helping to rescue a zookeeper from a large python in 1972, seemed to prove therapeutic.

A small brown poodle puppy received a vaccine (“This is one of my happy cases”). A cat named Ollie had a colony of ear mites evicted (“What a good kitty you are; I don’t care what they say”). Advice was offered on topics from declawing cats (he once spoke out against an Assembly bill that would have outlawed declawing) to canine pregnancy (“Boy, are you in for a surprise in a few months!” he told one dog).

Diarrhea, a not-uncommon complaint, afflicted a doleful bulldog named Lola. Katz recommended a fecal exam.

The assemblyman’s disgust with his fellow lawmakers does not prevent his dual occupations from occasionally merging. Two pit bulls owned by Carl E. Heastie, the new Assembly speaker, have been patients for five years, Katz said; other members often come to him for second opinions on their pets’ ailments.

Katz recently founded a Colorado company dedicated to selling cannabis-based treatments for animals. The company, called Therabis, has already begun producing three products for dogs. Katz garnered notoriety in 2013, when he was charged with marijuana possession months after voting against a medical-marijuana bill.

He said he plans to quit the Legislature after his current term ends to focus on his businesses.

For Assemblyman William Magee, a Democrat of Nelson, in Madison County, the auction business he started in 1960 to sell livestock, antiques, machinery and real estate, Magee’s Auction Service, has fallen off since he joined the Legislature, “just ’cause, you know, my other job,” he said. “That’s my priority.”

It earned him $5,000 to $20,000 in 2014, according to his financial disclosure form, as did another business dealing in real estate, the Farm & Land Agency.

If any lawmaker can claim to be innocent of questionable moneymaking outside Albany, it might be Sen. David J. Valesky, D-Oneida, who earned an unofficial “least conflicted award” from Common Cause New York, which recently released an analysis of lawmakers’ outside income, for the less than $5,000 he made playing the piano and the organ at his Catholic church.

Through a spokeswoman, Valesky declined to be interviewed about his musical career. But in 2010, when a professional concert pianist challenged him for his Senate seat, he told a Syracuse University publication, Democracywise, that “music has always been a way for me to relax and relieve many of the pressures” of life in the state Capitol.

Few legislators with other jobs have mixed politics with, well, politics like Bill Nojay, a Republican assemblyman from the Rochester area, who earned $5,000 to $20,000 in 2014 as a conservative radio talk show host. Even before he took his seat, the introduction to his show, set to menacing music, offered a preview of his views on government: “Behold New York: the once-legendary Empire State, where corruption, waste and laziness stultify the Albany Legislature.” (Nojay noted that he did not write the introduction, though he did not disavow the sentiment.)

“A lot of my colleagues don’t want to talk in front of me, because they think I’m going to repeat things on the radio,” he said, adding that he had never done so.

The trouble can run both ways.

Nojay has attended events as a pundit where “people will say things like, ‘Throw the bums out!’ and I’ll be standing there thinking, ‘I’m one of the bums!’,” he said. “So that becomes a little bit awkward, sometimes.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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