ALBANY – As Capitol scandals and controversies go, the State Senate flap over special salary deals for seven lawmakers ranks, for now at least, low on the list of outrages.
This is a town, after all, that over the past 15 years or so has seen people accused – and convicted in dozens of cases – of everything from embezzlement, bribery and rape to racketeering, bid-rigging and kickbacks.
But the decision by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan to quietly give extra stipends to four Senate Republicans and three Democrats has morphed into a controversy thanks, in part, to Flanagan’s handling of the affair.
Rapid response, it has not been.
It took Flanagan six days after The New York Times first reported the matter to emerge and speak publicly on the matter involving the pay levels of seven senators, including Sen. Patrick Gallivan, an Elma Republican.
When Flanagan finally took a few questions from a handful of reporters who staked out his Capitol office, he did so for only three minutes. His answers, an attempt to beat down the story that has attracted growing print, broadcast and digital media interest, failed to focus on a key component that has already been tattered in the last decade or so: the public’s perception of its state government.
Instead, Flanagan, a lawyer, narrowed in on the legality of the sweetheart pay deal he authorized.
“I’m very comfortable with what role I play, how we operate the internal workings of the Senate and the law’s on our side and so has case law,’’ Flanagan said before ducking back behind closed doors.
On Tuesday, he breezed by reporters without stopping to discuss the matter.
It’s been a performance that stands in sharp contrast to, say, how longtime and former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, himself no stranger to scandals, would have handled a public controversy. Bruno would have dealt with the matter quickly and head-on and not, as Flanagan did, leave it to rank-and-file senators to face a platoon of reporters chasing them down the Capitol hallways on Monday afternoon in a series of embarrassing video moments. Though no one covered their faces to the awaiting cameras, the image of more than one lawmaker dashing away from chasing reporters has a long tradition in Albany controversies.
Terms like “to my knowledge,’’ “within state law” and “witch hunt” came from the mouths of some of the senators who get the extra salaries.
“They certainly got caught flat-footed. I don’t think Senate Republicans expected this would erupt with this intensity. And they have made it worse,’’ said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
On Tuesday, Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the head of the Senate’s mainline Democratic conference, called for “someone in authority” to look into what she called “obvious violations” of state law.
She did not suggest who should investigate.
The issue is a simple one: Many lawmakers get stipends, called a “lulu” in the language of Albany, for chairing a committee or holding a leadership slot. You only get one stipend to boost salaries beyond the base $79,500. But there’s a bit of flexibility in the system.
For instance, Gallivan is chairman of the Senate crime victims, crime and corrections committee. That post pays a stipend of $12,500. But Gallivan is getting a new stipend this year of $18,000. How? As vice chairman of the Senate education committee, he’s grabbing the $18,000 stipend that committee awards. It’s made possible because Carl Marcellino, a Long Island Republican, rejected the $18,000 stipend to opt for a $22,000 lulu that came when he took the Senate majority whip post.
Gallivan calls it legal
Stipends are set by state law. The problem is the law awards stipends only for the “chair” of a committee. Nowhere in the statute does the term “vice chairman” appear for the purposes of getting a stipend.
The special deal was first awarded a couple years ago to a Central New York Democrat, David Valesky, who is a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, which broke away from the mainline Democratic conference to form a power-sharing coalition with Senate Republicans. It has helped keep the Republicans, led by Flanagan, in control.
This year, Flanagan added four Republican colleagues to the list of now seven senators getting the special pay perk.
Those getting the salary deals insist all is legal.
“I have been assured that all Senate stipends were paid out in accordance with the law and the state Constitution. To my knowledge, the payment process is consistent with previous years and has not changed,’’ Gallivan wrote in a text message Monday.
“I believe that everything was done in strict and total compliance,’’ Gallivan said.
Sen. Thomas O’Mara, a Chemung County Republican, is chairman of the Senate environmental conservation committee. It pays a stipend of $9,000. Instead, as vice chairman of the transportation committee, he’s taking that panel’s lulu, which is $15,000 annually.
O’Mara said he was “pleased” to accept the higher income.
“When your boss, so to speak, comes to you and says, ‘You get a raise,’ I said, ‘Thank you,’ ’’ O’Mara said.
“Well, certainly it seems as if everyone is obsessed with the 'Lulu Land' here in Albany. But quite frankly, it is a story about nothing," Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat and one of the seven getting stipends for a committee she does not chair, told NY1. "Legislative stipends have been in existence for decades here in Albany. It's certainly not something new."
In the Assembly, Speaker Carl Heastie sought some separation from the swirling around the Senate. He said his chamber does not rearrange stipends so that lawmakers beyond committee chairs or those in leadership can get higher stipends.
When he finally did address the issue, Flanagan did so not in his office or a conference room traditionally used for press events. Instead, a handful of reporters were escorted by Flanagan’s communications director, Scott Reif, down a hall and to a spot outside the Senate chamber in an area normally shut off to anyone but senators. It was also a spot the Senate leader could, as he did, quickly retreat once he was done making the points he wanted to stress without pesky reporters dragging things on.
“All of this has been transparent,’’ Flanagan said.
'Law is very clear'
There have been questions raised about written “Senate certifications” submitted by the Senate to the State Comptroller’s Office, which processes state payrolls, clearing the way for the higher stipend payments. One recent submission, for instance, shows Gallivan listed as “chairman” of the education committee, even though he’s not, according to copies of the documents furnished under the Freedom of Information Law.
The Senate GOP response to questions about the certifications and other issues came last Saturday via an email from Reif’s office at 9:18 p.m. The email contained a letter to Flanagan from David Lewis, the counsel to the Senate. In short, Lewis wrote that all was acceptable and that the certifications to the comptroller did not rise to any criminal level, such as filing of a false instrument.
In legal language, Lewis wrote: “The document sent to the Comptroller by the Senate authorizing payment is a determination of the Temporary President that the Senator is serving in a special capacity and should receive the particular stipend on the basis that they qualify for that amount, given that such member is acting in ‘any other special capacity therein' and is functioning ‘directly connected therewith,’ the business of the state.’’
Given the reputation hits on Albany the past decade, why didn’t the Senate simply seek to rewrite the law to reflect that vice chairs of committees could get the extra payments? That is a question some Senate Republicans, in retrospect and in private, asked this week in Albany.
Not all, though.
“Because it’s not necessary. I think the law is very clear,’’ Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the eight-member Senate Independent Democratic Conference, said when asked Tuesday why the law wasn’t clarified. Three of his fellow IDC members get the special stipend deals.
In a brief interview with a few reporters Tuesday, Klein twice raised the point that state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, a Democrat, processed the Senate stipends.
He said, “at this time,” there is no effort on DiNapoli’s part to get the stipend money returned.
“So that sounds like it’s okay, doesn’t it?’’ Klein said.
But NYPIRG’s Horner believes the Senate is missing something basic at play.
“Fundamentally, it’s wrong what they’re doing,’’ he said.
Lawmakers can sometimes live in a bubble in Albany, hanging around too much with fellow lawmakers, lobbyists and staffers who operate on a different channel than, perhaps, constituents back home. “So they came up with the Rube Goldberg equivalent of an argument and have not been able to articulate a clear message other than ‘we think it’s legal,’ ’’ Horner said.
But, he noted, that argument falls short.
“That’s not the standard for handling taxpayer dollars. The standard should be is what is the right thing to do. These are taxpayer dollars,’’ Horner said.