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Senate Dems would strip pension benefits from corrupted officials

Democratic Conference leader Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins held a press conference last week to discuss an ethics reform package in the midst of the arrest of two lawmakers earlier this month. Photo by Clara A. Smith.
April 22, 2013
As a result of two recent scandals plaguing state politics, the Senate Democratic Conference announced an ethics package early last week designed to transform state government and rein in cases of corruption by public officials.

The ethics reform package consists of a series of bills that would strengthen regulations regarding the use of campaign money, strip pension benefits from any state or local official convicted of a crime involving the breach of public trust, outlaw the use of campaign money for criminal defense, require reports be disclosed to the State Board of Elections describing campaign contributions, require elected officials to disclose campaign donations on their website and establish a public financing system for state campaigns.

Democratic Conference leader Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, held a press conference last Tuesday to discuss the ethics package.

"The events of the past few weeks have shown all New Yorkers more must be done to clean up Albany," said Stewart-Cousins. "Public corruption and the abuse of power by elected officials is a serious problem that must be confronted and eliminated. I urge my colleagues in the Senate Republican Coalition join with the Senate Democratic Conference to clean up Albany."

Following the arrest of Sen. Malcolm Smith, D-Hollis, and Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, D-Bronx, talk of ethics reform measures have come from Democrats, Republicans and the governor.

Senate Democrats proposed an ethics reform package which includes a measure that would retroactively strip legislators who betray the public trust of their pension funds. Sen. Ruban Diaz released a statement recommending that ethics reform begin in the “governor’s mansion.” Photo by AP.
Under New York election law, candidates are allowed to spend campaign money for "any lawful purpose" but the definition of the term remains loose and the way campaign money is raised and spent remains dubious. Spending campaign funds for personal use is prohibited, but because of the phrasing and relaxed definition, it is unclear what constitutes "personal use."

"For too long unethical politicians have used their campaign accounts as personal ATMs and defrauded the public as a result," said bill sponsor Sen. Terry Gipson, D-Rhinebeck. "Closing the current loopholes in legislation governing campaign funds is a common sense way to ensure these accounts are no longer utilized for non-campaign related payments. The public has a right to know how every dollar is spent on political campaigns."

The ethics package also includes a measure that will retroactively strip any state or local official convicted of a felony involving the breach of public trust of their pension benefits.

According to a press release from Stewart-Cousin's office, the currently implemented law only regulates officials who joined the pension system after 2011, when the last ethics reform package was passed. The Senate Democrats' proposal would affect all member pensions and because of that, a resolution has been introduced as a constitutional amendment.

Sen. Neil Breslin, D-Delmar, said "Elected officials who betray the public trust and are convicted of felonies due to their unethical, corrupt actions do not deserve any pension benefits. To expect the hard working taxpayers of New York state to continue to support these corrupt individuals is ludicrous."

Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, and Sen. George Latimer, D-Rye, both agree with Breslin that pensions should be taken away from public officials charged with a felony involving a breach with public trust.

"Those lawmakers who violate the public trust don't deserve a public pension regardless of when they were elected, it's as simple as that. A pension is something you earn serving the public —not serving yourself," Kennedy said.

"Not every politician is stupid, venal and corrupt and the ones who are make it difficult for the ones who aren't to effectively do their job… By retroactively stripping pension benefits from any state or local official who breaches the public trust and tightening the way campaign funds are spent, we will add additional deterrents to those seeking to betray the trust of their constituents," Latimer said.

A portion of the reform package would also deal with campaign money, specifically, that which is used for criminal defense. The bill would outlaw any campaign fund from being used for attorney fees or any cost for defending against criminal or civil prosecution for violating and state or federal law.

It would also require that campaign contributions to be disclosed in a report to the State Board of Elections as to whether or not a contributor is a lobbyist. As a result, the bill would prohibit any state agency or legislative employee required to file an annual financial disclosure statement from soliciting or receiving campaign contributions.

To curtail the pay-to-play culture, the Senate Democratic Conference is also putting forward a measure to require elected officials to post campaign donation information on their website and seek to establish a public financing system for state campaigns that require more transparency from campaign donors.

Sen. Ruben Diaz, D-Bronx, released a statement saying, "I would like to recommend that ethics reform in New York State begin in the governor's mansion."

In Diaz's press release, titled "What you should know" he writes, "You should also know that while this effort to turn up the heat on senators has begun, there is still no effort underway to restrict what Gov. Cuomo does with resources he raises, and no demand for a complete disclosure of the names of the donors from the Committee to Save New York — his ally — a private lobbying committee not subject to state campaign finance law.  The names of many of their donors remain in the shadows.

"While we consider how to restrict Senate campaign donations that are used to pay for meals, I would like my readers to know that many of my colleagues are routinely invited to the governor's mansion to eat his food and drink his wine with no oversight to who pays those bills," Diaz continued. "…We should be more concerned with stopping big money influence of corporations, groups and people that are getting access to meetings with governors and others by contributing big donations and by the conflict of interest of legislators serving as of-counsels and those that are board members of institutions whose leaders contribute big money."

The bill would also require elected officials to post campaign donation information on their websites and it would establish a public financing system for state campaigns.

"Legislative ethics should not be an oxymoron," said Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, D-Whitestone. "As Benjamin Rush, a signer of our Declaration of Independence once wrote, 'nothing that is morally wrong can be politically right,' and passing this package is the right thing to do."

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