A handful of New York senators are receiving committee stipends for committees they don’t actually chair. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan says the practice is legal. Jon Campbell / Albany Bureau
A handful of New York senators are receiving stipends for chairing committees they don’t actually chair. Jon Campbell / Albany Bureau
Video: NY Senate Leader John Flanagan defends pay tactic
Video: Legal or fraud? NY Senate defends payment tactic
ALBANY — Stipends issued to some state senators for positions they do not hold have caught the eye of prosecutors.
Both the state Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have requested documents pertaining to eight senators receiving stipends for leadership posts they didn’t hold, according to media reports.
The senators from the Republican and Independent Democratic Conference have insisted they followed all state laws.
“We welcome and will cooperate with any and all appropriate inquiries, because we know that everything was done in accordance with the Constitution and the law,” said Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Republicans.
The Senate leadership has been embroiled in controversy after records recently showed the senators — including upstate Sens. Tom O’Mara, R-Big Flats; Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, Erie County; and Pamela Helming, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County — were listed as holding committee chairmanships that paid more than their current positions.
Debating the law
Counsel for Senate Republicans has argued the payments are within the law, saying it has wide authority as a separate branch of government to authorize stipends.
But the payments, which were at least several thousand dollars more than the senators actual chairmanships, has drawn the ire of good-government groups and Senate Democrats, who called for an investigation.
“It seems every day troubling new questions arise and new details are learned about the apparent abuse of the Senate stipend system,” Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said Tuesday. “The time has come for someone in authority to properly look into these obvious violations of state law as outlined in our legal memo.”
Spokespeople for the Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District, which would have jurisdiction because some of the senators live in the New York City judicial district, declined comment Friday.
To conduct a criminal investigation, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman would need a referral from a state agency, but that does not appear to have occurred.
Conducting a probe
Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office has not made a referral after it processed the stipends in two payments earlier this year, said his spokeswoman Jennifer Freeman.
She also declined comment on whether DiNapoli’s office is working with law enforcement.
Earlier this week, DiNapoli’s office said the stipends were approved because of documents submitted by Senate GOP staff, saying there was no basis to take back the money “at this time.”
“When our office receives a payroll request that has been certified by the Senate, or any state entity, we make the payment,” Freeman said earlier this week.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo weighed in on the issue Thursday when asked about it by reporters in Manhattan. He questioned why DiNapoli, who the governor has clashed with, didn’t more closely evaluate whether the payments were appropriate.
“It’s the comptroller’s opinion whether or not that was legal,” Cuomo said. “If it was not legal, the comptroller shouldn’t have done it. If it’s not legal, the comptroller should call up and say, ‘Whoops, I made a mistake, I need the money back.'”
Salaries and stipends
Lawmakers get a base salary of $79,500, and they haven’t received a raise since 1999 after a deal for a pay hike fell apart late last year.
Many legislators also get stipends for leadership positions, which range from $9,500 to more than $40,000 for the heads of the Senate and Assembly.
The situation under question, though, dealt with how some lawmakers hold both a committee chairmanship and a conference leadership post.
They can’t get paid for both. So some lawmakers who hold conference leadership positions left the stipends for their committee chairmanships uncollected.
The Senate GOP, instead, gave those committee stipends to vice chairs of some committees, since they pay more than other senators’ other posts.
In the case of O’Mara, for example, he received a $15,000 stipend for the chairmanship of the Senate Transportation Committee, even though he is actually vice chairman and is the chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee, which comes with a lower stipend of $12,500.
Gallivan, meanwhile, received a $18,000 stipend from the Senate Education Committee — yet he actually chairs the crime and corrections committee, which comes with a $12,500 payment.
Helming said Monday said she hasn’t yet cashed her stipend checks and will return them.