Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, convicted of seven felonies related to the abuse of his office, is in line for a pension of $90,750 a year. His criminality makes no difference to his ability to collect, and if that’s not a crime, it’s the next thing to it.
The problem is rooted in the New York State Constitution, which makes no provision for forfeiture of a pension upon conviction of a crime. Lawmakers have had opportunities to begin the process of changing that, but they have only dabbled at it. Given the number of legislators and other state officials who have been convicted of crimes in recent years, perhaps that’s not surprising. They have a history of serving themselves.
Lawmakers did make some half-hearted efforts at dealing with this issue earlier this year. Each chamber approved a bill that could eventually place a constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters to decide. But it wasn’t important enough for them to have reconciled the measures. For anything to happen, the chambers need to pass identical bills in two separate sessions of the Legislature. After that, voters would decide.
That means the earliest that voters would weigh in would be in November 2017. That’s assuming the current Legislature approves a proposed amendment before its term expires in December 2016, and that the next Legislature does likewise early enough the next year for it to be placed on the November ballot.
There ought to be enough impetus to get this done now. Between Silver’s shame and the ongoing felony trial of his legislative counterpart, former Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, both lawmakers and voters have surely had enough. What is more, voters may have had enough of lawmakers who refuse to show appropriate seriousness about the ethical disaster that is New York State government.
Of course, some larcenous individuals won’t be deterred by any obstacle that seeks to moderate their greed. But the risk of losing a pension would have an impact on some people contemplating actions that would disgrace them. And loss of their pensions would be an appropriate punishment for those who use their public offices for criminal purposes.
A constitutional amendment on this matter could not be retroactive – nor should it be – so it would do nothing to prevent Silver from collecting his pension. But that doesn’t mean he is in the clear. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office prosecuted the former speaker, said when Silver was indicted in February that if the case ended in conviction, he would go after Silver’s pension to repay any ill-gotten gains.
It’s a serious threat. Bharara did the same after convicting former Sen. Pedro Espada, who is serving five years in prison for embezzling money from a health clinic. He owes $368,088 as a result of his conviction and prosecutors are intercepting his pension to pay it.
Silver’s sentencing isn’t scheduled yet, so there is no telling at this point what financial liability he may face, in addition to the potential for serious prison time. Even after, with the likelihood of appeals, it may be a long time before Bharara can get his hands on Silver’s pension.
But it’s a fair tactic. If Silver is ordered to repay what he gained through criminal conduct, then prosecutors should pursue that money. Seizing the pension of someone who no longer deserves it counts as both criminal and poetic justice.