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Controversy grows over Senate stipends
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Karen DeWitt

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, keep 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 instead 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 Common Cause, says 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 says “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 the State’s 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 DA says the office  “does not comment on the existence or status of pending investigations”.

Some Republican Senators also received the payments.  Senator Tom O'Mara, of the Southern Tier, is chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee. He is also 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 Transportation.  O’Mara says 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 raise’,” said O’Mara. “ I said ‘thank you’.”

And Senator O’Mara took a shot at critics.

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

The actual Chair of the Transportation Committee, Senator 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, in fact, the vice chair of the committee.

And Independent Democratic Conference member Jose Peralta says he actually accepted a reduction when left the mainstream Democrats and joined the IDC earlier this year. Peralta says 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 when he is actually the Vice Chair.   He says he believes the payments are legal and will keep the money.

There are conflicting opinions from attorneys who work for the Senate over 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, in the memo says the committee positions were listed in the payroll documents presented to the State Comptroller for “accounting” purposes- and not meant to falsely claim that the Senators actually hold those positions. And he says 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.