A call by a federal prosecutor to strip the pensions of crooked lawmakers received a mixed reaction Wednesday as some lawyers and lawmakers questioned whether it could be done under the state constitution.
Preet Bharara, the Manhattan-based U.S. attorney, said the thought of lawmakers who accepted bribes sitting in prison collecting their taxpayer-backed pensions was a “galling injustice that sticks in the craw of every thinking New Yorker” during testimony Tuesday evening before a special anti-corruption panel.
Bharara said his office would seek fines that accounted for any pension gains of convicted lawmakers as part of their sentencing, and “to the extent any public official has a pension interest that accrued while engaging in criminal conduct, we will use federal forfeiture law to claw back an appropriate dollar amount commensurate with that pension where appropriate.”
It’s not a normal tactic for federal prosecutors, attorneys said, but it’s also not a new idea.
Seizing pensions as punishment for corruption has been debated at the state Capitol and ruled out during previous overhauls to state ethics laws, including a 2011 change. Several rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats carry bills on the issue, but they never seem to go anywhere.
“It’s an interesting attack,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Whether or not that will be successful, and how it deals with state constitutional protections, is unclear.”
Mike Koenig, a former federal prosecutor and partner in the Albany firm of Hinckley Allen, said Bharara was taking an “aggressive and creative approach. … But ultimately, it may be something courts will have to decide on.”
While Bharara, in his testimony, made reference to an “error of state law, partially fixed” in recent years, the state constitution clearly states that “membership in any pension or retirement system of the state or of a civil division thereof …read more