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Controversy grows over Senate stipends

Karen DeWitt

There are calls for a criminal investigation of some questionable stipend payments to some New York state senators. One of the senators who received those payments is giving it back, while another is calling the controversy a “witch hunt.”

Several senators who are part of a breakaway group of Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference were paid extra stipends — ranging from $12,500 to $18,000 a year — for serving on various Senate committees controlled by the majority party Republicans.

The IDC has formed an informal ruling coalition with the GOP and helps keep the Republicans, who do not have an actual numerical majority in the chamber, in power.

The payments, first reported in the New York Times, raise questions. The senators, according to payroll documents, were paid for being chairs of Senate committees when they were not. The senators are the vice chairs of the committees. But under state law, they are not entitled to any additional money for the position of vice chair.

Susan Lerner with the good-government group Common Cause said the payments, at the very least, appear “problematic.”

“It appears to be straight up illegal that the payments are made based on documents that are simply false,” Lerner said. “That’s fraud.”

Lerner calls it one of the worst examples of “transactional politics” that she said “borders” on outright bribery.

“Taxpayer money is being used for transactional political purposes to buy a coalition,” she said. “That is a misuse, we believe, of taxpayer money.”

Common Cause and other government watchdog groups say the Senate should immediately end the practice of paying the stipends, and that state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Albany County District Attorney David Soares should look into the matter.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general had no comment. And a spokeswoman for the Albany County district attorney said the office “does not comment on the existence or status of pending investigations.”

Some Republican senators also received the payments.

Sen. Tom O’Mara of the Southern Tier is chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee. He also is vice chair of the Transportation Committee. But he receives a higher stipend for the vice chair position than the amount he would have received if he were paid for the committee chair post. Each senator is allowed to receive just one stipend.

The paperwork states incorrectly that O’Mara is chairman, not vice chairman, of the Transportation Committee. O’Mara said he didn’t question the arrangement when Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan told him about it.

“When your boss, so to speak, comes to you and says, ‘You’re getting a raise,’ ” said O’Mara. “I said, ‘Thank you.’ ”

And O’Mara took a shot at critics.

“I see it more as a witch hunt,” O’Mara said. “To go after the Republican majority in the Senate.”

The actual chair of the Transportation Committee, Sen. Joe Robach, instead accepts a higher stipend for holding a leadership post as the secretary of the Senate Majority Conference.

But another senator, Republican Pam Helming of Geneva, said in a brief statement that she is giving back the stipend she received for chairing the Crime and Correction Committee when she is actually the vice chair.

And Independent Democratic Conference member Jose Peralta said he accepted a reduction when he left the mainstream Democrats and joined the IDC earlier this year. Peralta said his stipend with the Democrats was $14,000 a year; now, it’s $12,500.

“I took a pay cut,” Peralta said.

Peralta is falsely listed as chair of the Energy and Telecommunications Committee on the payroll documents; he is actually the vice chair. He said he believes the payments are legal and will keep the money.

There are conflicting opinions from attorneys who work for the Senate about whether any laws were violated.

Over the weekend, the top counsel for the Senate Republicans released legal memos claiming the practice is legal. The attorney, David Lewis, said in the memo that the committee positions were listed in the payroll documents presented to the state comptroller for “accounting” purposes and are not meant to falsely claim that the senators actually hold those positions. He said under the law, legislative bodies are allowed some leeway in how they allocate resources to lawmakers.

A spokeswoman for the Independent Democratic Conference would only repeat the GOP counsel’s opinion that the stipends are “fully permitted under state law.”

Lawyers for the minority party Senate Democrats disagree. They believe the practice of paying chairmanship stipends to senators who are not actually chairs of committees violates language in the state’s constitution.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.