A proposal made by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York has renewed a debate over whether public pensions can be seized from elected officials who are convicted felons. NY1's Zack Fink filed the following report.
The state's Moreland Commission was appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo to investigate ethics and public corruption.
Citing cases against Assemblyman Eric Stevenson and state Senator Malcolm Smith, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told the commission that his office plans to go after their pensions.
"For those defendants previously convicted and who have failed to satisfy the financial obligations imposed at sentencing, we will consider federal forfeiture actions against their pensions to satisfy criminal judgments," Bharara said Tuesday.
While Bharara appears to be the first U.S. attorney in the nation to attempt this, it may not be that simple, particularly in a state like New York, where pension rights are enshrined in its constitution.
Article 5, Section 7 of the state constitution reads, "Pension benefits cannot be reduced or impaired."
"We tried to do exactly this," Cuomo said. "We wanted to take the pensions of members who were convicted of felonies. It was not constitutional to take their pension as their pension, because that was a right that was already vested."
Two years ago, the legislature passed and the governor signed legislation that allows pensions to be removed from prospective elected officials, but the law was not retroactive due to constitutional concerns.
Bharara's office on Wednesday declined to clarify his remarks.
"It's a creative attempt to use the criminal justice system," said state Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens. "I'm sure the U.S. attorney has done his research and thought about it thoroughly. The courts will judge it. I hope he succeeds, frankly."
State Senate Democrats have introduced a bill to change the state constitution, which would treat all public pensions as assets subject to seizure.
"Everyone who's been watching the news knows that we need to do something to bolster the ethics in the state, not just in the legislature but in all of state government," Gianaris said.
In order to change the state constitution, a bill must pass both houses of the legislature and be signed by Cuomo in two separate legislative sessions before going to voters in a referendum. Democrats are hoping that the revival of the debate leads to renewed interest in their bill.