Lawmakers promise, again, to seize felons' pensions

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Heastie. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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ALBANY — One of the state Legislature's proposed responses this year to the cloud of corruption caused by the convictions of its former leaders is actually something lawmakers gleefully agreed to do last year, but then didn't: strip state pensions from convicted felons.

“We have to take another look,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, said Wednesday after opening the legislative session. “I don't think there's a disagreement; there'd be disagreement if there wasn't a desire to get it done. Who is included, and what measures and what limitations, I think, is the discussion.”

But even if there's no disagreement, there's also no agreement.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Heastie made a deal in March — after Heastie's predecessor, Sheldon Silver, was indicted — to increase disclosure of legislators' outside business and law clients, restrict the use of campaign funds and beef up the forfeiture law. In 2011, lawmakers agreed that any prospectively elected senator or Assembly member should have to give up their pension if convicted of violating the public trust. But in order to capture current lawmakers like Silver, they would have to change the State Constitution.

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A bill that would be the first step toward changing the constitution passed the Senate but stalled in the Assembly amid concerns by public employee unions that it would capture rank-and-file state workers — not just corrupt politicians. As Heastie explained, that's a different kettle of fish, and one that some of the more union-friendly, liberal members of the Assembly are wondered about.

“Initially the desire seemed to be to punish elected officials who were caught [in some] wrongdoing, to satisfy the public's demand. That's what we looked at, but it seems to me we may need to look at who's excluded and who's included,” the speaker said.

Senate Republicans have begun attacking the Assembly's inaction — it's even come up in a special election for the seat formerly held by former Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, who was ousted after he was convicted last year of selling his office.

Skelos and Silver have both filed for their pensions in recent weeks, stoking public outcry. But even if the Assembly had acted last year, it would take until at least 2017 to amend the constitution, something Heastie noted in talks with reporters on Wednesday.

Cuomo has said ethics reforms are on the “top” of his agenda, and in Rochester this week, the governor said the state should “remove the pensions of public employees who are convicted of a felony.”

Assemblyman Dan Stec, a Republican from Queensbury who has been outspoken on the issue, said the public perception among his constituents changed after Joyce Mitchell pleaded guilty to helping two inmates escape from the state prison in Dannemora in June. Mitchell worked in the prison's tailor shop, and is still entitled to a pension.

“I'm comfortable with expanding it beyond elected officials, but if that's all we can get done, then let's get that done,” Stec said. “My concern is that there are some in Albany who are using the one to prevent anything from happening, and so they like the stalemate.”