A commission appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to investigate public corruption is holding its first series of hearings. At the kick-off event in New York City, a prominent figure in busting corruption in the legislature announced he’s found a back door way to confiscate the pensions of convicted state politicians.
Moreland Act Commission Co-Chairman William Fitzpatrick, who also serves as Onondaga County district attorney, summed up the mood in his opening remarks at the first hearing. Fitzpatrick says any business that saw 35 of its employees during a five-year period indicted, convicted, or investigated and led out in handcuffs, might invite a period of reflection.
“Something along the lines of one business partner saying to the other, ‘Who the hell are we hiring here?,'” Fitzpatrick said.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who uncovered several instances of corruption in the legislature this spring, including the separate bribery and embezzlement cases of former Senate Leaders Malcolm Smith and John Sampson, was the first witness to testify .
“Public corruption, based on all the evidence, appears rampant,” said Bharara, who noted that he’s found the alleged wrongdoing to be bipartisan, with both Democrats and Republicans accused of crimes.
Bharara announced that he’s found a way to seize the pensions of any public officials that are convicted of corruption-related crimes. He says he’s already filed papers in two of the cases he’s prosecuting to require the politicians, if convicted, to forfeit the amount of money they would receive in the future in taxpayer funded retirement benefits.
“Convicted politicians should not grow old comfortably, cushioned by a pension paid for by the very people they betrayed in office,” Bharara said.
Some legislators have proposed enacting a law to take away the pensions of convicted lawmakers, but New York's Constitution prohibits it. In order to change the constitution, it would require the approval of two consecutively elected state legislatures, and then go before the voters. That process could take years.
The commission, charged with probing corruption in campaign financing, is already looking through records of campaign donations held at the state Board of Elections. It’s also sent letters to numerous state lawmakers who are attorneys, asking them to disclose the names of clients they’ve represented in public civil or criminal cases, and the amount of money they received in legal fees. Partly as a result of those letters, the main factions of legislature have hired private attorneys from prominent law firms. Republicans in the Senate have even hired a former U.S. Attorney, Bharara’s predecessor Michal Garcia.
Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, says she finds that disappointing.
“It raises questions,” Lerner said. “What are the legislators trying to hide? What are they so frightened of?”
Common Cause is among the groups scheduled to testify at the next public hearing of the Moreland Act commission, to be held in Albany on September 24.