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Question facing voters: Should corrupt public officials be stripped of pensions?

ALBANY – If there is a single item on the statewide ballot on Nov. 7 that is 100 percent certain to pass, it’s Proposal 2.

After nearly a generation of relentless headlines about corruption cases in Albany, voters are being asked if they want to strip pensions from state and local government officials who commit felonies related to their work.

The proposed change in the state constitution would end a loophole in state law that allows public officials who entered the state and local government pension system prior to November 2011 to retain their full monthly retirement checks even if convicted of a crime related to their job.

The amendment proposal gives great leeway to judges to allow the pensions payments if an “undue hardship or other inequity” would be placed upon children or spouses by blocking pension payments.

The amendment applies to crimes committed after this Jan. 1.

“Twenty-three other states have pension forfeiture provisions on the books, yet no other state includes such a broad, sweeping and self-serving exemption for sitting officials," Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, said of the existing statute that would be extended under the proposed amendment.

The amendment follows the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos for political corruption. Lawmakers previously approved the amendment, so now voters get the final say.

“I think it’s fair to say that this is a momentous occasion,’’ Assemblyman David Buchwald, a Westchester County Democrat and the measure’s Assembly sponsor, said in introducing the pension resolution last Jan. 30.

“It’s not too often that we amend our state Constitution, and it’s even rarer that we amend the New York Constitution to deal specifically with corruption,’’ he added.

Some lawmakers raise concerns.

The Senate approved the resolution 57-4. All 4 no votes came from Democrats.

“Pensions are not a reward for good or bad service. They are not like a gold watch. They are, in fact, the product of deferred salary. They are, in fact, personal property. And I think we go down a very bad road when we send the message that pensions can be taken away for behavior,’’ Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat, told her colleagues that day.

“This is wrong. I mean, if I do something bad, I should go to jail. But then my wife and my children are left out on the street, in the street? We’re punishing them, our children, for the crime of their fathers, just to please the media? Just so the media could say that are doing good? It’s a cowardly thing,’’ said Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., a Bronx Democrat.

Skelos has a pension of $96,000 annually and Silver is getting $79,000 a year. The amendment would not affect either, or the long line of people who have been bounced from office over recent years as a felony conviction automatically requires.

But going forward,  a public official convicted of a crime that has a “direct and actual relationship” to  existing duties could be stripped of a pension. In deciding if all or part of a pension should be stripped away, a judge must determine not just on the “undue hardship”  but also on factors such as the severity of the crime and “the proportionality of a reduction or revocation of such pension to such crime.’’

The amendment would cover thousands of posts held by public officials, which are defined as someone who:

  • holds an elected office.
  • is a judge or justice of the state’s unified court system.
  • is an employee of a legislative, executive or judicial system who “directly assists” in such acts as crafting of legislation, regulations or judicial decisions and who is designated as “a policy-maker” in their posts.
  • is a county, city, town or village administrator or manager.
  • is the top official in a state or local government agency, board, commission, public authority or other public bodies.

Also classified as public officials are chief fiscal officers or treasurers of a political subdivision in the state and individuals appointed by the governor to an office, whether or not the Senate is charged with confirming that appointment.

Supporters of the amendment call it a necessary step both as a possible deterrent or additional punishment for those who engage in corruption – and to recognize New York’s cynicism over Albany.

“It’s very frustrating for the men and women that we serve to understand why … members who they sent here and they elect violate the public trust and still get a benefit from what they see as a taxpayer institution,’’ Sen. Thomas Croci, a Suffolk County Republican and Senate sponsor of the resolution, told his colleagues during the Senate debate.

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