Share this article

print logo

Panepinto’s push for action by state board was a serious lapse of ethical behavior

Marc C. Panepinto was a political operative in 2001, proficient at gathering signatures, but also, he says, overwhelmed. That’s why he signed as a witness to signatures he didn’t actually gather and it’s what got him in trouble with the law when it turned out some of those signatures were forged.

He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and when the issue inevitably arose during last year’s successful campaign for State Senate, he acknowledged the failure, but insisted it was nothing worse than a lapse in judgment.

But based on reports about his recent efforts to game the system – or at least not to care if it looked that way – voters have cause to wonder if it was less a lapse of judgment than evidence of character.

The New York Daily News busted Panepinto on Monday in a story detailing his efforts to persuade officials of the state Workers Compensation Board to take action that could benefit his law firm. The story reported that, shortly after taking office in January, Panepinto, D-Buffalo, pushed officials of the board to drop plans to alter or reduce the reimbursement rates paid to doctors and other providers of medical services.

Panepinto’s efforts tracked the position of his law firm, Dolce Panepinto, which specializes in Workers Compensation cases. The firm pays him more than $1 million a year.

The obvious conflict would have been at least somewhat diminished had Panepinto consulted the Legislative Ethics Commission, as he was required to do. But he apparently didn’t. The new state senator, operating in an ethically bankrupt environment that is under intense scrutiny by federal investigators, ignored the need to clear his intentions, then pushed for policies with the potential to benefit his law firm, or at least to curry favor with those who refer cases to the firm.

Only two possibilities explain this conduct. Either he wasn’t aware of the need to consult the commission and somehow didn’t know he was engaging in a clear conflict of interest, or he didn’t care that he was. Given his background in politics, the former seems unlikely, and given his conduct in 2001, the latter seems all but certain.

Either way, it was foolish in a way that suggests Panepinto is in the wrong job at the wrong time. Perhaps a few years ago, no one would have cared. Albany was little more than a criminal conspiracy masquerading as a state government.

Today, at least, there is some fear among lawmakers of being outed, and perhaps indicted, for a lack of ethics that crosses the line into criminality. Many legislators have been convicted of crimes and, just this year, the former leaders of the Assembly and Senate, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, were indicted on felony charges. It’s a different day in Albany.

No one has accused Panepinto of another crime, but his recklessness in this environment is startling. He didn’t care that he started out with a reputation bound to attract scrutiny, didn’t care that voters are more attuned to the need for honest government, didn’t care that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is prowling the back halls of power in quest of crooked politicians.

It was ignorance or hubris, and neither reflects well on any senator, especially Panepinto. He needs to do better than this.