Federal court approves seizure of pensions of crooked politicians

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BY JOEL GROSSBARTH

A Federal Appeals Court has upheld the tactic of pension forfeiture in the fight against political corruption.

In United States v. Stevenson, a Bronx Assemblyman was convicted of wire fraud and bribery. He was sentenced in Federal Court to 36 months in prison. The Court also issued an order of forfeiture in the amount of $22,000 from his pension, representing the amount of the bribes Stevenson accepted. In ordering the forfeiture, the Federal Court relied on a federal statute that allows seizure from “contributions, funds, benefits, rights to disbursements or other property” held by the New York State Local Retirement System.

Stevenson claimed that under the New York State Constitution, his pension funds are protected. Article V, Section 7 of the New York State Constitution states that a (pension) plan’s benefits “shall not be diminished or impaired.”

The Federal Appeals Court relied upon the Article Six of the United States Constitution which provides that “the Laws of the United States shall be the supreme Law of the Land;… anything in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” This language, commonly known as the Supremacy Clause mandates that federal law preempts any state law when then an inconsistency exists.

The conflict between New York law and the federal forfeiture statute must be resolved by finding the federal law preempts the state law. As a result, Stevenson will lose his pension contributions to satisfy the forfeiture order issued by the court.

New York State is currently working on amending the State Constitution to allow the Attorney General to seize the pension accounts of any pension member found guilty of criminal behavior. While this process is ongoing, the State Constitution protects those politicians who have recently been convicted of criminal behavior.

Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator Dean Skelos, both of who were convicted in State criminal Court will not lose their pensions. The difference being they were convicted in State Court while Stevenson was convicted in Federal Court.

The recent decision may be bad news for several Rockland politicians facing federal charges. Ramapo Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence and N. Aaron Troodler, the former executive director of Ramapo Development Corporation, stand to lose their pensions with the state if convicted in federal court. It is also possible that Ramapo Town Attorney Michael Klein and Ramapo Deputy Finance Director Nathan Oberman stand to lose their pensions if found liable in the civil proceedings filed against them. 

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