Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Getting Paid Twice

Is Nicer Than Nice

By Henry J. Stern
August 18, 2009

Last Thursday’s article opened with this question: “Is it possible that we have reached the high water mark in abuse of the public trust?”

We were referring to the appointment of Pedro G. Espada to a $120,000 job with the State Senate Democrats as part of a deal between his father, Senator Pedro Espada, Jr., and Senate Democrats. In July, the elder Espada restored a Democratic majority in the house by returning to the party fold after a month spent with the Republicans.

Today’s New York Times reports, on page one, a new challenge to the standard we thought had been reached. We did not know before today that some New York State legislators are receiving state pensions for prior terms they have served, while they draw a full salary, plus lulus, for their current term. They continue in the very same job, taking one day off to create an artificial break in service. Then they start collecting a pension that is comparable to their legislative salary, in addition to the salary they currently receive ($79,500 plus juicy lulus plus per diem for part time work).

Under the four-column headline, SOME NEW YORK LAWMAKERS TAKE PENSIONS ON TOP OF PAY, Albany bureau chief Danny Hakim tells the story that begins on pAl and jumps to pA20. This is Hakim’s lede, suggestive of a feature story:

“When Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg retired last year, there were no sendoffs, no cakes and no serenades.

“In fact, no one even knew he had left the Capitol, because he never did. Mr. Weisenberg, 75, a Long Island Democrat, ‘retired’ last year but continued to work as a lawmaker and remained on the payroll. As a result, he earns $101,500 in salary and collects a pension of about $72,000, according to the comptroller’s office.”

Mr. Hakim then cites two legislators who have taken similar advantage: Assembly members Rhoda Jacobs of Brooklyn and John J. McEneny of the Albany area.

“All of them are beneficiaries of ‘double dipping’, a practice in which public servants simultaneously collect government salaries and pensions, sometimes for the same job… In Albany, veteran lawmakers can ‘retire’ at 65 from their jobs and start collecting pensions, but without actually leaving their jobs, giving up their salaries or even telling their constituents Four legislators took advantage of the rule last year.”

We recommend that you link to the story, which covers considerable nuances in the art of double dipping. Hakim also credits a principled man, Assemblyman Bob Reilly of Clifton Park (it’s near Albany). He and his wife are retired state employees, receiving pensions. He decided to donate his entire legislative salary ($79,500) to charity. That is even better than giving it back to the state, because he can see the money used most effectively to help people, rather than becoming a small raindrop in a $125 billion bucket.



There are a variety of situations that can be covered under the mantra "double dipping." They vary in justification. If a civil servant who retired from agency A is asked, on the merits, to perform important work that he is uniquely able to do for agency B, it is not unreasonable for the state to allow him the pension he earned at agency A while he receives a salary from agency B from the new work he is doing.

As the fact patterns change, however, the cases become more dubious and the recipients become less deserving. For example, a political selection in which the appointee has no relevant background or qualifications for the new job, arouses more suspicion than a position gained by competitive examination, or the recommendation of experts in the field. A job in the same agency, performing the same or similar duties, raises questions of patronage and cronyism

Double dippers may also be more disposable. Since they are already pensioners, they will not starve if they lose their job. It is important, however, to see that the double dipper does not acquire tenure, since he can then behave as badly as he likes with relatively little at stake for him on the downside.

The idea of an elected official continuing in his office while simultaneously collecting a pension, is ludicrous. It makes a mockery of the purpose of a pension, which is to provide support for a person who, because of age or redundancy, is no longer part of the workforce. People who have spent their most productive years working for government, a non-profit, or a private company, deserve support in their years of retirement, in addition to the safety net provided by social security. If an elected official wishes to become a pensioner, let him so advise his constituents so they may decide whether they would prefer to pay him twice over, or be represented by someone who is able to subsist on a single salary from the state.

The Hakim article goes into detail on the variety of shenanigans and machinations of those seeking to enhance their pensions at the expense of the public. But it is not intended to cover every abuse of the state and city’s generous pension systems.

Some of the more egregious offenses in this area are the inclusion of overtime in the final year’s salary, which is the multiplier in some older plans, and the scheduling of senior employees so that their excess overtime is mandated by collective bargaining agreements. The lifers who wrote the rules know best how to play by them, while the temporary commissioners, seeking to burnish their reputation as friends of labor, sometimes fall over themselves with concessions. In many situations, the union guys are smarter than management. In almost all cases, they know more about the history of the issues involved. They also know, from experience, which arbitrators are patsies. If the arbitrator doesn’t dance in harmony with their tune, he will not find himself on any more panels, except as a management representative.

Hakim has provided a few samples of the incestuous rituals that take place when lawmakers and lawbreakers tamper with the laws of retirement. Players compete by finding who can find the most ingenious way to maximize personal benefits by wringing as much as possible out of the system.

The rule of reason with regard to pensions should be simple – you are either an employee OR a pensioner. Exceptions should be few, far between, widely published and subject to frequent review. It’s not that hard to do it right, if you weed out the self-servers with a vested interest in doing it wrong..


None of these beneficial arrangements, however, surpasses the ‘achievements’ of Alan G. Hevesi, former City and State Comptroller, who was forced to resign to escape felony prosecution for a relatively trivial offense. Hevesi was actually a triple dipper. As Elizabeth Benjamin wrote in the Albany Times Union in 2006,

“According to Hevesi’s tax returns, he earned more in 2005 from his pensions ($166,467) than he did from his state salary ($149,766).

“Hevesi received $104,123 from the NYS Employees Retirement System, of which he was, until today, the sole trustee and $62,344 from the Teachers’ Retirement System from a stint he spent teaching at Queens College.”

The money from the State system was principally derived from his 23 years in the State Assembly. Hevesi was an Associate Professor of Political Science at Queens College, which is part of the City University of New York. He taught there from 1967 to 1993, resigning to run for City Comptroller, a position he occupied for eight years.

He ran for Mayor in 2001, coming in fourth in the Democratic primary. The next year, he was elected State Comptroller, narrowly defeating Republican John J. Faso.

Alan Hevesi was re-elected handily in 2006, but did not serve a day of his second term because of his forced resignation. He now subsists on his pension, plus whatever investments he may have made during his 39 years as a teacher and state and city official. In his city and state positions, he made a lot of other people richer.

One of his sons, Daniel, served four years in the State Senate (1999-2003). Hevesi’s younger son, Andrew, has been an Assemblyman since 2005, when he won a special election to fill a vacancy caused by the resignation of Michael Cohen, who had taken the seat previously held by Melinda Katz, who had given it up to run for Congress in 1998. Katz was defeated by Anthony Weiner, but was elected to the City Council in 2001 and re-elected in 2005. She is currently a candidate for the Democratic nomination for City Comptroller, the position once held by the senior Hevesi.

Reflecting on pension complexities and abuses, and the confusion they generate, suggests the following excerpt from a great poem, which you should read in full:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre,

The falcon cannot hear the falconer,

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Link here for the complete poem (22 lines).

StarQuest #584 08.18.2009 1529 wds

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