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Bribe-taking judge will get annual $120,000 pension

By pleading guilty to bribery-related felonies days ago, John A. Michalek did nothing to jeopardize his six-figure state pension as a former State Supreme Court Justice.

He will be paid approximately $120,500 annually through his golden years, The Buffalo News determined through payroll records and a years-of-service figure provided by the State Comptroller’s Office, which manages the state’s pension funds.

The payments could change slightly based on subtle variables that will be considered before the payments begin later this year, a spokeswoman for the comptroller’s office said after being told of The News’s calculation.

Michalek’s pension is safe, even though New York lawmakers and good-government groups have long argued that public officials should lose all or some portion of their pensions if convicted of a crime related to their official duties. The talk grew louder in recent months with the convictions of major state political figures such as former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

The Assembly and Senate this year approved bills to reduce or even revoke the pensions of public officials convicted of corruption related to their official duties. But the bills are a long way from becoming law. The Legislature must approve the bills in two consecutive sessions, and then place the matter before voters in a public referendum.

The public must weigh in because pension-related penalties require an amendment to the State Constitution, which currently mandates no loss in benefits once someone enters the state pension system.

Even if voters go along, however, Michalek’s pension would not be affected. Nor would those being collected by Silver and Skelos.

So far, state lawmakers have agreed that office-holders hired or elected after 2011 can lose their pensions when convicted of crimes related to their duties. But that provision does not affect the vast majority of public officials in New York.

Michalek’s years as a public employee go back to 1977, when he was hired at the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. He served there until 1985, and then, with two other lawyers, established a law practice in Hamburg. After joining the town’s political scene, Michalek was named assistant town attorney in 1988. When the town supervisor, Jack Quinn, was elected to Congress, Michalek served as interim supervisor for a year.

Michalek, a Democrat, was tight with Vincent J. Sorrentino of Hamburg, who was chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee. With Republican cross-endorsement, Michalek was elected in 1994 to the State Supreme Court bench and re-elected in 2008. He spent about 20 years as a judge.

Michalek, now 65, accumulated 36.35 years of service, the State Comptroller’s Office said. But the comptroller’s staff will not calculate his pension until his effective retirement date, which Michalek set as mid-September.

So The News fed Michalek’s years of service and his final average salary – determined by his best-paid, 36-month string – into the comptroller’s pension formula to calculate that Michalek’s pension will amount to some $120,500 a year. And as a state employee, Michalek’s pension is free from state income tax.

Michalek set his retirement date as Sept. 21, which also is the scheduled date of his sentencing.

Spokesmen for State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli and Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman were unable to shed light on why Michalek chose that strategy. The delay provides no advantage to his pension, the comptroller’s office said. And the attorney general’s spokesman, Matt Mittenthal, acknowledged that Michalek’s pension is protected under current state law.

Erie County’s legal community was rocked by the judge’s conviction, which came when he pleaded guilty June 29 to felony counts of bribe-receiving and offering a false instrument for filing. He resigned immediately and agreed to cooperate in the attorney general’s case against political operative G. Steven Pigeon.

State police and prosecutors examining possible election law violations by Pigeon, 55, seized his personal computer in May 2015 and found emails that showed the judge had allowed Pigeon uncommon levels of access and information in civil matters involving Pigeon’s friends and associates. Meanwhile, the judge was asking Pigeon to help him find jobs for relatives and to help move him up the judicial ladder.

While a grand jury indicted Michalek on two counts, Pigeon now faces nine felony charges. He pleaded not guilty on June 30.

From many vantage points, Michalek appeared as a respected jurist unlikely to betray the ethical code.

Two days after the guilty plea, the president of the Erie County Bar Association, Gregory T. Miller, circulated a message to members outlining how Michalek’s cases would be reassigned among the remaining judges, and urging them to remember Michalek in a more positive light.

“I would encourage each of you to consider that none of us wish to be defined by our worst moments, and that we would do well to recognize that throughout his tenure, Judge Michalek handled hundreds of complex matters with skill and devotion,” he said.