There are reports that state senators who received payments for chairing committees that they actually did not chair are now under a probe by the state attorney general and at least one U.S. attorney.
Several Republican and independent Democratic senators were paid stipends allocated to chairs of Senate committees. But the senators weren’t actually the chairs; they had all been designated as vice chairs, a relatively new title. There is no provision in state law to pay stipends to vice chairs.
Senators have defended the practice as perfectly legal, based on the Senate GOP leadership’s top lawyer, who has issued a memo justifying the practice.
Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein said his members have been “transparent” about the arrangement.
“They will continue to be vice chairs of committees and accept their lulu, or stipend, which they are entitled to,” Klein said.
But now, according to published reports in the New York Times and New York Daily News, the state attorney general and the U.S. attorney for eastern New York are questioning the arrangement and have requested the underlying documentation that the Senate sent to the state comptroller, who approved the payments.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said she cannot officially comment on any potential investigations.
A spokesman for the Senate Republicans said they welcome any inquiries and will cooperate because they believe “everything was done in accordance with the Constitution and the law.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo weighed in on the controversy shortly before the probes were made public. The governor did not criticize the senators, but instead placed the responsibility on the state comptroller, who signed the checks for the extra payments. Cuomo and state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli have feuded on numerous issues.
“If it was not legal, the comptroller shouldn’t have done it,” Cuomo said. “The comptroller should call up and say, ‘Whoops, I made a mistake, I need the money back.’ ”
The comptroller’s office, however, has never said that the payments were legal. A spokeswoman said earlier in the week that the comptroller deferred to the Senate, as a separate branch of government, in their judgment about which senators were to receive stipends and for what reasons.
After the governor spoke, DiNapoli spokeswoman Jennifer Freeman said in a statement that “the comptroller’s office is not a court of law” and that the issue needs to be decided either by the Senate itself or by “the legal system.”
For an official criminal investigation to be launched by the state attorney general, the comptroller would need to make a formal referral to the attorney general. There’s no confirmation from the comptroller on whether that has occurred.
Reporters asked Cuomo whether he thought the payments, legal or not, were appropriate.
“None of it looks good,” Cuomo said.
Government reform groups say it’s time to ban the stipends altogether. Every senator in the chamber receives some form of a lulu, either for a committee post or for a leadership title. Several of the senators who receive the extra payments have poor track records of attendance at committee meetings.
Susan Lerner with the government watchdog group Common Cause said the payments are a “tool” that the legislative leadership uses to reward members who don’t rock the boat and to punish those who may stray from the party line.
“It’s a way to shut up dissent and to ensure that only those who go along with the leadership have an active role,” Lerner said. “It’s one of the reasons why our legislature is so entirely dysfunctional.”
Common Cause supports a general pay raise for all legislators instead. Legislators’ current base salary is $79,500 a year. It’s been nearly 20 years since that amount has been increased. Last year, Cuomo and the legislature tried to agree on a salary increase, but the effort failed.