The leader of the state Senate Independent Democratic Conference for the first time publicly answered questions from the media about news stories that some of his members received stipends for committee chair positions that they do not actually hold.
State Sen. Jeff Klein defended the practice, while the leader of the Senate Democrats is calling for an investigation.
The senators received the stipends for chairing the committees, known in Albany lingo as “lulus,” even though they actually held the position of vice chair. There is no provision in state law for vice chairs to be paid additional funds.
Klein at first attempted to lighten the moment by joking about the attention the situation, which was first reported in the New York Times, has attracted.
“Welcome to Albany’s version of lulu land,” Klein said. “That’s all we seem to talk about.”
Klein said it was “within the law” for Senate Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan to “determine who gets stipends” and to send paperwork seeking authorization to the state comptroller. Klein denied that some of his members were taking money for chairmanships when they did not actually hold the posts. He grew testier as he explained that it’s more complicated than that.
“That’s nonsense,” he said.
Klein said the letter that asked the comptroller for the payment authorization was actually a kind of “coding” that did not specifically state that the senators who were paid the stipends actually held the committee chair posts. He said the practice is permitted under the state’s constitution.
“I believe everything that we’ve done in the past and right now is in full accordance with not only the constitution but with the legislative law,” Flanagan said.
A legal opinion from the top counsel for the Senate Republicans backs up that view.
Flanagan said the Republicans have a “very good bipartisan working relationship” with the IDC. And he said the breakaway Democrats, as well as some Senate Republicans who also received similar stipends, all deserved the money.
“All the members, Democrat, Republican, Assembly or Senate, are worthy of the compensation they receive,” Flanagan said.
Despite that, one of the Republican senators, Sen. Pam Helming of Canandaigua, has said she’ll return her stipend. It was falsely paid to her as chair of the Crime and Corrections Committee when she is the vice chair.
Attorneys for the mainstream Senate Democrats, who are in the minority in that chamber, have a different interpretation of whether the payments were legal: They believe they were not.
In a statement, Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins called for an investigation, calling the payments “obvious violations of state law.”
The two entities that hold the authority to investigate, the Albany County district attorney and the state attorney general, aren’t commenting. The attorney general would need a referral from a third party to launch a probe.
A spokesman for the Senate Republicans, Scott Reif, accused the Senate Democrats of “playing politics” and he said the Senate should instead focus on “important work” it needs to do before the session concludes in June.