Story by Joel Grossbarth posted in the Rockland County Times August 24, 2016
(The four Ramapo defendants facing federal charges have more to look forward to than fines, sanctions and prison time.)
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.
REACTION from Robert Rhodes Chairman of Preserve Ramapo
It looks like Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence will lose his NYS pension after 16 years of “service” to Ramapo.
Preserve Ramapo did everything it could to protect St. Lawrence from his own folly. First we pointed out that he was secretly destroying a beautiful forest from the inside out as he began to build the stadium. Then we circulated a petition and forced Ramapo to hold a referendum vote on the proposed bond to fund the stadium. We won the referendum with a 71% rejection of the bond.
St. Lawrence pledged that no public funds would be used to build it. When that proved to be just one more lie from our supervisor we went to court. There we pointed out that contrary to state law the stadium was being built without a capital budget or the encumbrance of any funds to build it. The judge was told the stadium was mostly built, which was just another lie. We were overruled while a $20–$25 million stadium became a $70 million stadium.
St. Lawrence funded the stadium with short term bonds which didn’t allow for a possible challenge via another referendum. He then turned around and converted that short term debt into long term bonds–a clear violation of the referendum.
Our analysis of the financial folly years before the feds brought criminal and civil charges against St. Lawrence and his closest associates at town hall has proven to be correct. St. Lawrence had to spend years cooking the books to cover his financial disaster.
It is truly wonderful that St. Lawrence’s sixteen years of “service” to the town of Ramapo will probably result in his loss of pension. And it’s certainly not unfair considering that we will spend the next 20 years paying off the debt he created for all of us.
We hope he will have ample opportunity to consider this problem while the federal government provides him future room and board.
Robert I. Rhodes, Chairman, Preserve Ramapo