State Assemblyman Robert Smullen got a very good deal.
Charged with felony property tax fraud, the Johnstown Republican pleaded guilty to a violation — a punishment that, given the seriousness of the original charges, barely qualifies as a slap on the wrist.
It’s also a gift.
Smullen’s legal troubles could have ended his career in politics, as convicted felons are barred from serving in the New York State Legislature.
Pleading to a lesser charge allows him to dodge that particular bullet — an occasion that one might expect to inspire relief, thankfulness, even humility.
Indeed, it’s hard to see how Smullen could have gotten a more favorable deal, especially when you consider that no one has ever disputed the truth of the allegations against him — that he received a primary-residence-only combat veteran property tax exemption on both his Niskayuna and Johnstown homes.
Smullen, for his part, has always maintained that he made a mistake, and that he rectified it by agreeing to pay back about $4,437 to the town of Niskayuna, Schenectady County and the school district.
What he’s never done is deny receiving the exemption on both the Niskayuna and Johnstown properties.
Which is a pretty big mistake if it is, in fact, a mistake.
Perhaps that’s why I was a bit surprised by the weirdly defiant reaction Smullen’s camp had to the outcome of his case.
Smullen’s wife, Megan Smullen, went so far as to criticize the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office, which she accused of compelling her to testify against her husband during the grand jury process to “try and further hurt my family.”
“And then the assistant district attorney tried to twist my arm by telling me to convince my husband to plead guilty to a misdemeanor,” she continued. “I am not sure if this is illegal or not, but it is highly questionable if not unethical.”
Here’s something that might come as a surprise to the Smullens: Most people accused of felonies don’t get to plead down to a violation.
A misdemeanor, maybe.
But a violation?
That’s far less common.
So let’s be honest: The Assemblyman got a very good deal.
That said, one of my frustrations with the Smullen case is that it’s difficult to know how prevalent the type of property tax fraud he was accused of is, as these kinds of cases are rare, and thus to judge the appropriateness of his settlement.
If nothing else, the case exposes the need for a better system to check and make sure people aren’t claiming tax exemptions they’re not entitled to — a database, perhaps, where municipalities can run a name and see whether a filer has claimed a single-residence-only exemption elsewhere.
Right now, the system seems overly trusting, with few mechanisms in place for cracking down on this particular type of fraud, or rooting it out.
There’s a chance that the Smullen case helped educate people on the consequences of claiming a primary-residence-only property tax exemption on two properties.
But my guess is that it did the opposite: That it showed people how easy it is to get away with this particular crime.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]