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Editorial: Pension forfeiture legislation watered down

Editorial: Pension forfeiture legislation watered down

New York closer to having ethical state government, but not very much
Editorial: Pension forfeiture legislation watered down
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, is shown in 2014 with Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, left, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER

Not terrible. Not great. Certainly not enough.

The state Legislature last week took the most obvious, politically facile step to curb the ethics crisis in the state government by passing a pension forfeiture law for convicted government officials.

And even then, they did it years too late to catch some very big fish, and they included enough flexibility in the law so as to limit the impact and scope of the legislation.

In short, New York is closer to having an ethical state government, but not very much.

The pension forfeiture legislation (S418/A1749), which must be approved by voters in November, starts off OK in its goal of depriving pensions to politicians who commit felonies related to their office.

But when you wade into the details, the legislation gets watery.

For instance, it’s not automatic that lawmakers’ pensions would be forfeited upon conviction of a felony.

First off, the felony has to have had a “direct and actual relationship to the person’s duties as a public officer.” That’s not as easy to prove as one might think.

In the case of former state Sen. Joseph Bruno, for instance, he was accused of selling his influence as Senate majority leader to business associates of a consulting firm he ran while in the Senate.

But he was eventually acquitted of the charges, in part because it was so hard to prove the direct connection between his business dealings and his legislative duties.

Why not make conviction of any felony while in office subject to forfeiture of the pension, regardless of whether it applies to the job? Should taxpayers be rewarding public officials with a pension if they commit felonies while in office?

That’s one issue. Another is that the bill doesn’t require entire pensions be automatically forfeited, or that they be forfeited at all.

It will be up to a court to decide whether to revoke a pension, or to reduce it. Factors used in determining how much the convicted felon would have to give up include the severity of the crime and, get this, whether the reduction or revocation would result in undue hardship to the corrupt politician’s spouse, minor children or other dependents.

In one sense, this appears to be an act of compassion for innocent family members. But how much of a deterrent is it if you know the court can weigh the impact of your crime on your poor, beleaguered family? How many families of other felons get such consideration?

Why the flexibility? Public officials shouldn’t be committing any crimes in office. If their crime rises to a felony conviction, the entire pension should be automatically revoked. Gone. Deal with your own family crises. That would serve as a deterrent.

Another potential break: The convicted public official would be eligible for a refund of personal contributions he made to his pension. Seriously.

So it’s possible, under this legislation, that a corrupt official could end up either keeping his pension, or at least a good portion of it. And the state could be writing him a check for the amount of his own money he put into it.

Suddenly, those teeth don’t seem quite as sharp.

Another flaw in this bill is the timing. Lawmakers should have, and easily could have, passed a bill like this years ago. But they didn’t include sitting legislators in a bill passed in 2011.

So unless a court intervenes, state taxpayers will still be paying the hefty state pensions of convicted politicians like Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver ($79,222 a year) and convicted Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos ($95,831 a year).

And the pension forfeiture won’t affect crimes “committed” before the bill officially takes effect next January. So if you’re going to commit a felony using your public office for personal gain and you want to keep your pension, you’ve got 11 more months to squeeze in some extra corruption.

There are elements to like about the bill, particularly the part about who is subject to the forfeiture — just about everybody in government. That includes all elected officials in the state, governor’s appointees, state lawmakers, legislative employees, public authority officials, judges and justices, and town, village, county and city leaders and department heads.

Just the prospect of losing the pension should make some politicians, especially the lower-level ones, think twice.
Even though this reform bill falls short in many ways, voters by all means should support this referendum. As a relative used to say, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye.

But citizens shouldn’t let lawmakers get away with claiming they’re anywhere near done with ethics reform because of this one action.

They only slightly addressed the impact of outside influences last week by passing a resolution declaring that any member of the Legislature earning more than $5,000 of income through outside employment must submit a written request for an advisory opinion to the Legislative Ethics Commission.

No corrupt lawmaker is going to report such income (That’s what makes them corrupt.), and they’re certainly not going to seek an ethical opinion before they go and do something illegal. But again, it’s something.

Lawmakers still haven’t passed significant campaign finance reform to get the influence of big money contributors out of state politics, and they have so far refused to limit the terms of committee chairmen and other leadership posts so that individuals can’t accumulate too much power.

A watered-down pension forfeiture bill and a requirement that politicians seek an ethics ruling on outside income can either be viewed as a step forward toward eliminating corruption or as a smokescreen to hide the fact that they continue to do very little to combat corruption.

What actions they take next will give us our answer.

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