Share this article

print logo


Second of two parts

For the State Legislature, public service is certainly no vow of poverty.

Indeed, for many lawmakers, their state job gives them a check nearly double the average weekly wage of New Yorkers and loads of time to hold lucrative outside jobs.

As talk spreads that the 212-member Legislature might be trying to find a way to give itself a pay raise through a reform of its much-criticized stipend system, a review by The Buffalo News of each member's financial disclosure filing shows that, for many, Albany has not put a crimp on their finances.

Half the lawmakers hold outside jobs. Dozens have real estate holdings that include office buildings, land and condos from Florida to Hawaii.

Mercedes-Benz and Lexus models are not an uncommon sight in the legislative parking lot.

And the stock holdings of some lawmakers might make some day traders blush. One brokerage house, for instance, needed 198 pages to list a lawmaker's investment holdings and activities last year.

Beyond outside employment, lawmakers have access to other ways to make life a bit more comfortable beyond the means afforded them by their base salary of $79,500, which is supplemented for the majority of lawmakers by a stipend of another $9,000 to $41,500 a year.

There are the freebies for the asking -- tickets to sporting events, wining and dining at theater openings, treats delivered to their offices. Some get honorariums.

Leaders get cars, some with chauffeurs. New York's loose campaign finance laws allow them to use political donations to pay for vehicles, trips and cell phones.

Lobbyists pay for many legislators' meals at Albany restaurants -- even though the state gives them $143 for expenses for each day they're in Albany.

There also are junkets paid for by outside interests, some with business dealings in New York.

The trips

In 2003, according to the most recent reporting period, 12 lawmakers, including Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, took a "goodwill trip" to Taiwan.

Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, went to Greece and Cyprus, along with several other lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-New York City, on what was billed as a "fact-finding" trip.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Rensselaer County, evaluating his treatment options for prostate cancer, was flown by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in one of his private helicopters to a Baltimore hospital.

The trips made public on annual financial disclosure statements filed with a joint legislative ethics committee don't include treks funded by campaign accounts or ones costing less than the disclosure minimum of $1,000.

A half-dozen lawmakers reported receiving trips valued at more than $1,000 but didn't detail where they went. Among the other destinations disclosed was a ski resort in Colorado, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, India and various vacation destinations across the United States.

Under laws they wrote, the legislators don't have to reveal how much the trips cost or who went with them. And such travel, under laws they also wrote, is considered exempt from the state's usual ban on gifts valued over $75.

"C" for sunshine

Nor do lawmakers have to reveal how much they earn in outside income, a lapse that helped earn New York a "C" grade from the Center for Public Integrity on its sunshine laws. Nor are lawmakers restricted in their outside business interests. The watchdog group recently found that 42 percent of New York's lawmakers sit on a committee with authority over a professional or business interest and one-third have financial ties to companies or organizations that lobby the state.

A review by The Buffalo News of 212 ethics filings revealed 34 of 62 senators had some sort of outside employment.

In the Assembly, 72 out of 150 members had outside jobs.

About one-fourth of lawmakers with outside jobs are lawyers; several are at firms that represent government agencies, while others perform medical malpractice, divorce, estate planning and corporate law.

The other outside jobs include owners of a collection agency, a drugstore, auction company, gravel company, funeral home business, laundry service, real estate firm and insurance agency, as well as a lifeguard, a military reservist, a pastor and a cattle farmer. One lawmaker, Sen. Efrain Gonzalez, D-Bronx, owns a cigar company with operations in the Dominican Republican. More than a dozen drew salaries as directors of banks and other companies.

Some were busier than others. Nassau County GOP Assemblyman Thomas Alfano, a lawyer, reported receiving income from five different firms.

Bruno, despite the enormous responsibilities of his state job, brought in fees from his own financial consulting company and a salary from a consulting firm in Connecticut; he also is a partner in a horse breeding operation.

Silver, the Legislature's top Democrat, who, with Bruno, has final say over all legislation, is a lawyer with a trial law firm in Manhattan.

Among Western New York's six senators, one -- Sen. Dale Volker, R-Depew, who has a law practice -- reported outside employment.

Among 13 Assembly members, six had outside jobs. Elma Republican Sandra Lee Wirth has a real estate business. Tokasz sells insurance. Buffalo Democrat Brian Higgins, recently elected to Congress, was a part-time college lecturer. Hamburg Democrat Richard Smith, who is retiring, has a charter fishing boat business. Daniel Burling, R-Castile, owns a drugstore. James Hayes, R-Amherst, owns a marketing consultancy business.

Burling, whose ethics filing shows he owns an airplane, boat and Porsche, said he has to pay a pharmacist more than $30,000 a year to staff his drugstore in Corfu for the days he is in Albany. "The pay I get from the Legislature allows me to be able to spend the time away from my business and spend time on the people I represent," he said.

Weak laws, critics say

The co-chairman of a Senate panel looking into reform ideas said all aspects of the Legislature need to be examined.

Noting that Congress has cracked down on limits of outside employment, Sen. Frank Padavan, a Queens Republican, said, "Maybe that's something we have to look at. If we're going to talk about reform, we have to talk about every aspect of it and see where it flies," he said.

Disclosure laws in New York, critics say, are weak. Governors release tax forms, but lawmakers don't have to disclose what they make on the outside or who partners are on some business deal. Many provide only scant information about stock holdings. Further, a loophole requires that stocks held only on the last day of the year have to be reported.

Honorariums only have to be reported if over $1,000; other states set either caps on such payments or make disclosure mandatory if they're as little as $25.

In New York, gifts with a value over $1,000 that are outside the state's $75 gift ban definition must be reported; in California, anything over $50 is public, the Center for Ethics in Government says.

Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, D-Brooklyn, reported no outside income; her husband's finances are unclear because, she said in her report, he "objects to providing information."

Watchdog groups say the lax disclosure rules raise concerns.

"You can't tell someone if you want to be a legislator that you've got to give up your outside job, but there's got to be some very strict ethical guidelines for conflicts of interests between the law firms they belong to or the businesses they're in and the issues they deal with in the Legislature. That's where this Legislature has been abysmal in -- it's ethical guidelines," said Barbara Bartoletti, a lobbyist with the League of Women Voters.

"Being a legislator means you have the trust of the electorate. You're not there to make yourself richer," she added.


There are no comments - be the first to comment