Retiring Nicely After Betraying Public’s Trust
By CLYDE HABERMAN
Guy J. Velella, a former state senator from the Bronx who died last week, was bidden farewell at a funeral service on Monday. His legacy, however, lives on. Among other things, Mr. Velella will be remembered for having turned a career of public service into one of public shame by taking bribes and going to jail for his corruption.
He will also be remembered as someone who pocketed public money even after pleading guilty in 2004. Every year, his conscience unburdened, Mr. Velella collected a state pension of more than $75,000. “The law says I’ve earned it,” he told The Daily News a few months ago. “I’m entitled to it. I take it.”
Mr. Velella was not the only corrupt public official with a sense of entitlement. That is why new calls have arisen to change the law so that bribe takers, kickback schemers, pay-to-play chiselers and other finaglers holding public office do not enjoy the same retirement privileges as their honest colleagues.
In Albany, the lineup of cosseted crooks has grown long.
High on the list is Alan G. Hevesi, the disgraced former state comptroller, who receives an annual state pension of about $105,000. Others picking up impressive pensions after being found guilty of crimes have included Joseph L. Bruno, the former State Senate majority leader (about $96,000 a year); former Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr. ($43,000); former Assemblywoman Gloria Davis ($62,000); and Anthony S. Seminerio, a former assemblyman who died in prison four weeks ago ($71,000).
A new addition is Vincent L. Leibell III, a former state senator from Putnam County, who pleaded guilty in December to charges rooted in a kickback scheme. Like Mr. Seminerio, he is eligible for a yearly state pension of $71,000.
In some Albany circles, there is a feeling that enough is enough.
It is shared by the present state comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, who got his job in 2007 after Mr. Hevesi washed out. The other day, Mr. DiNapoli proposed legislation to take away pensions from an array of elected officials and their appointees — potentially thousands of people at state and local levels — if they are convicted of felony charges involving an abuse of office.
Because of limitations imposed by the State Constitution, this penalty would apply only to future officials. Mr. Hevesi and the others could keep cashing those pension checks. But to encourage present officeholders to walk the straight and narrow, Mr. DiNapoli recommended that wrongdoers be fined as much as double whatever money they made from their unlawful behavior.
“Public confidence in government has been bruised and battered,” the comptroller said, a statement that would seem to defy contradiction. The goal, he said, is to “remind every public official that violating the public trust will not to be tolerated.”
SOME other states have comparable pension-stripping laws, and Mr. DiNapoli’s aides said he was confident that New York would enact its own this year. Others are not so sure. They include State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan, who has sponsored bills along those lines since the Velella scandal burst open seven years ago. She has gotten nowhere.
One argument she often hears, Ms. Krueger said Monday, is that to take away pensions would unfairly penalize family members who may depend on that money, and who did nothing wrong themselves. At least, she said, “that’s the argument that people can make to me with a straight face.”
Her response is: “You know, when real people go to jail, their families pay a price, too. I thought we were sort of real people.”
Ms. Krueger said she doubted that “a free-standing bill” would get enough votes for passage. Instead, she suggested that pension forfeiture be “rolled into an ethics reform package” that is expected from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Whatever form the legislation may take, the principle remains the same. It’s quite simple: If you violate the public’s trust, you don’t deserve the public’s money. “I really believe that you, the public, get to hold me to a higher standard,” Ms. Krueger said. No one, after all, forced her to run for office.
But don’t be too glum, you in high places with sticky fingers. Things could always be worse. Forfeit your pension? How about forfeiting your life? In China, they execute your kind.