The State Capitol is once again consumed by scandal, this time over the legality of leadership allowances for lawmakers. As State House Reporter Zack Fink explains, many state senators are on the defensive after taking money for posts they don't actually hold. Here's his report.
It was another day in Albany of politicians cutting off question-and-answer sessions with reporters — and, in some cases, simply running away.
It has become an all-too-common scene, with major corruption scandals rocking the capital in recent years.
The latest controversy involves state senators receiving leadership stipends, also known as "lulus," for positions they do not hold.
"Well, certainly it seems as if everyone is obsessed with the 'Lulu Land' here in Albany. But quite frankly, it is a story about nothing," State Sen. Diane Savino of Staten Island said. "Legislative stipends have been in existence for decades here in Albany. It's certainly not something new."
Savino is a member of the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a group of Democrats who have formed a majority coalition with Republicans. She and Jose Peralta, another conference member, received stipends as committee chairs, even though they are actually vice chairs.
But when the stipend request was sent to the state comptroller's office for approval, it called them both chairmen.
Peralta has been accused of joining the coalition for higher pay.
"When I was in the mainline Democratic conference, I was making $14,500, and currently I receive a stipend of $12,500," the Queens state senator said. "So I took a pay cut. I'm glad you asked that question."
Republicans have four members receiving stipends for chairmanships they do not hold, and lawyers for the senate majority argue that this is longstanding practice and perfectly legal.
"Frankly, I see it more as a witch hunt by certain groups and entities to go after the Republican majority in the Senate," said State Sen. Tom O'Mara of Elmira. "This started out as trying to go after IDC members, and they found that several IDC members received stipends in this capacity."
At least one senator, Pam Helming, offered to give back her extra money Monday.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said this would not happen in the Assembly.
"We don't even have those in the Assembly committees, vice chairs of a committee," Heastie said. "We don't even do that."
With a change in leadership at the U.S. attorney's office, it's unclear if federal prosecutors will investigate.
The state attorney general would need a referral likely from the state comptroller, who so far says there is no reason to ask any of the senators to return the money.