Crime does pay for state leaders
Officials still collecting hefty pensions despite corruption convictions
CAPITOL Former state Comptroller Alan Hevesi went to prison for influence-peddling at the state’s massive pension fund and gets by these days on a $105,941 pension.
Former state Sen. Carl Kruger is behind bars in a bribery conspiracy, but still collects a $58,000-a-year pension. Former Sen. Nicholas Spano, who cast votes to spend billions of taxpayer money but failed to pay his own taxes, is eking out jail time on $70,154 a year.
In Albany, breaking the law might send state officials to prison and ruin careers, but their generous pensions are safe. And it, along with many questionable, everyday elements of Albany, isn’t expected to change anytime soon, despite promises by politicians to end abuses and combat corruption after the latest spate of lawmaker arrests this month.
“The scandal isn’t what’s illegal,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who is prosecuting the latest corruption and bribery cases. “The scandal is what’s legal.”
His comment shows a careful reading of news reports from Albany for decades. Here, corruption arrests prompt press releases, new laws, new ethics boards, re-election of incumbents on cleanup Albany platforms — and more corruption.
But today, as in past anti-corruption furors, powerful legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo aren’t considering the many bedrock measures that could change Albany forever. They include term limits, which a Siena College poll found is supported by 82 percent of voters, and taking away the pensions of politicians convicted of crimes, which a Quinnipiac University poll found is supported by 84 percent of voters.
The daily practices also not being addressed include:
• Campaign fundraisers attended by lobbyists who earlier in the day tried to persuade officials to vote for or against legislation.
• The tradition of hand-delivering campaign financial disclosure forms to avoid a charge of mail fraud in Albany’s confusing gray area of what’s illegal and what’s allowed.
• A better than 90 percent return rate for incumbents benefiting from taxpayer-paid staffs, brochures, photographs and TV and radio broadcasts.
• A Republican Senate majority and Assembly Democratic majority that drew its own election districts to protect its power in 2011, after lawmakers and Cuomo promised to adopt nonpartisan redistricting.
• Thousands of bills each year passed only in one chamber that have no chance of becoming law, but placate lobbyists and campaign contributors.
And it includes cases like this one that confronted state Sen. Liz Krueger when she was a freshman a decade ago.
She offered a compromise bill over the hot issue of what do about the 5-cent bottle deposit. She figured, without consulting raging lobbyists for environmental causes and for bottlers, why not just split it?
After she introduced the bill, a lobbyist was at her door.
“I demand you pull your bill,” she remembers the lobbyist telling her. “I won’t let any of my clients give you or the Senate Democrats any money.”
He responded: “Are you even an American?”
“He wasn’t doing anything that was corruption,” Krueger said last week, “but what’s wrong with this picture? That was part of what goes on up here every day, without even being blinked at.”
But Krueger and her ideas won’t even be part of today’s debate. That’s because Albany, unlike most states, and increasingly under Cuomo, is run by closed-door negotiations. Those are attended only by Cuomo, Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, state Sen. Jeff Klein of the four-member Independent Democratic Conference and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who leads the minority conference of Democrats, won’t be allowed to participate. Neither will Assembly Republican Minority Leader Brian Kolb. Yet Kolb and Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville, are pushing the boldest idea of all that won’t be on the table: making New York the 20th state to allow voters to recall legislators or statewide candidates. It’s an idea that could put all lawmakers at risk and has never been seriously considered.
“Don’t do an idea because it’s a little more risky for an elected official?” Kolb said. “If you start thinking that way, then nobody will do anything to really challenge the status quo.”