Should Cuomo Lose His Pension? No—Or, Not Yet
In the news: “Disgraced Gov. Cuomo files for $50K pension ahead of delayed resignation.” According to the New York Post,
“Disgraced Gov. Andrew Cuomo filed retirement papers with the state to receive a $50,000 annual lifetime pension — just days before his resignation takes effect over his sexual harassment scandal.
“’The governor just filed his application for service retirement. The date of retirement is Sept. 1, 2021,’ a spokesperson for the state comptroller’s office said Tuesday.”
Cuomo is 63 years old and has been a New York state employee for 15 years, 11 as governor and 4 as attorney general. (Previously, he held positions with the federal government and worked in private legal practice.) This places him in Tier 4 of the New York pension system, which gives him a benefit of 1.66% of pay for each year of service (for employees with less than 20 years of service), payable at age 62. Based on a pay of $225,000, that works out to $56,000 per year, though the actual benefit will be somewhat lower due to the three-year averaging requirement and the lower pay rate in 2019 (though possibly mitigated by the fact that his pensionable pay may be the higher $250,000 that he declined).
Had Cuomo been convicted of a felony, rather than merely resigned, he would, in fact, have lost his pension, based on the Public Integrity Reform Act (as, again, reported at the New York Post). But, again, there is no provision in New York law to cancel a pension merely for accusations made, or for impeachment, which is not a finding of criminal responsibility.
Separately, earlier this month, just one state over, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the legality of the cancellation of a pension for a municipal inspector who had taken a $300 bribe. According to the Intelligencer,
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“The court, in a 5-1 ruling, determined that the Legislature had established a public pension based on the pre-condition of honorable service, rejecting Bennie Anderson’s contention that taking it away represented a fine. . . .
“The court, in a 5-1 ruling, determined that the Legislature had established a public pension based on the pre-condition of honorable service, rejecting Bennie Anderson’s contention that taking it away represented a fine.”
Anderson had been receiving a pension of $60,173 per year, which was initially reduced, then wholly forfeited after he pleaded guilty to “using his position to attempt to obstruct, delay and affect interstate commerce by extortion.” He claimed that it violated the “excessive fines” clause of the constitution, which the court rejected by means of refusing to classify this forfeiture as a fine.
And, honestly, Anderson’s claim appears to be that the harm he did is that of the $300 bribe. We know that this was a bribe to “change the tax description on a house,” and perhaps this was a comparatively small manner, reducing the briber’s taxes by an amount measured in four digits rather than five or six.
But bribery, generally speaking, is no small matter. Ask the Willis family, or, that is, the surviving members of a crash which killed six of their nine children, a crash which exposed the bribery scandal of former Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan, because the trucker had gotten his license through bribery, and what appeared to have been a freak accident was the result of an unqualified driver, who “hadn’t pulled over when other motorists warned that the taillight assembly was loose.” Yet Ryan, even after serving time for corruption, disclaims any responsibility for the accident. And, yes, Ryan lost his state pension after his conviction.
Now, to be sure, Ryan was found guilty of crimes more extensive than a $300 bribe. But 76 individuals were convicted as the scandal unfolded.
Ryan didn’t resign as with Cuomo, but the mounting scandal did prevent him from running for re-election (and handed the governor’s office over to the Democrats in part because the Republican nominee rather inconveniently bore the same last name, though of no relation). But it was Ryan’s crimes which triggered the seizure of his pension.
Should Cuomo be similarly convicted of criminal charges, he would be subject to New York’s laws on the matter — but that would require that the state government have the political desire to prosecute rather rather than simply levy claims, then let the furor die down and move on, and, in any case, prosecutors would face an uphill battle, according to a Reuters analysis.
What it all adds up to is simply that “taking away pensions” is not a simple matter, and it can’t be done just because a politician begins to be seen as a “bad person.” But actual, convicted criminals? That’s a different story altogether.
As always, you’re invited to comment at JaneTheActuary.com!