Misuse tax dollars? Falsify public records? Take kickbacks for votes and influence?

You may go to jail, but you probably won’t lose your taxpayer-funded pension, thanks to a loophole in a recent state law.

State lawmakers decided that this should change. In 2011, they passed ethics reforms giving Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and district attorneys the power to file a lawsuit to reduce or revoke pensions of a public official who is convicted by plea or trial of official malfeasance.

But Schneiderman has never sued. Dutchess County District Attorney William Grady hasn’t either.

Since the legislation wasn’t retroactive, it applies to officials who took office after 2011, who have been convicted of a felony related to their official duties in the last few years, and who are eligible to receive a public pensions, according to the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011.

“There aren’t any cases that I am aware of where that would have been a possibility,” Grady said.

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

It’s a loophole that dozens of state senators and Assembly members have proposed legislation to fix. But with time winding down in this year’s legislative session, the bills pending in both houses will likely have to be reintroduced next year, said state Sen. Terry Gipson, D-Rhinebeck.

He is a principal sponsor of one pension reform bill.

“Clearly, if you are a convicted felon, you can’t possibly think it is OK that you will still receive a taxpayer-funded pension. It is truly unacceptable,” he said.

However, until reforms occur, if Town of Beekman Comptroller Fred Knapp is found guilty of using close to $400,000 in town taxpayer money to pay off a personal credit card, as prosecutors allege, the state constitution guarantees he can collect his pension.

Last month, Knapp, 62, the was charged with second-degree grand larceny, a felony. The City of Poughkeepsie resident pleaded not guilty and is due in court Thursday, June 19.

His wife, former county Democratic Board of Elections Commissioner Fran Knapp, faced 46 felonies and 48 misdemeanors last year related to election records. She was convicted of two election-law misdemeanors under a plea bargain: making a punishable false written statement and official misconduct.

Had her conviction involved a higher level of charges, she would not lose the pension. Under the 2011 pension reforms, she cannot be sued due to her more than 20 years of public service.

The Knapps didn’t return Journal messages.

In April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed measures that could have affected the outcome of her case. His Public Trust Act would create three new felony degrees of official misconduct and increase maximum sentences.

Cuomo’s proposal: For grand-larceny convictions, the involvement of state or local government property, including government funds, would increase the class of felony and carry a higher penalty. This is the allegation in Fred Knapp’s case.

The proposed changes come after a string of public corruption cases in New York state. At least 26 state lawmakers have dealt with ethical problems or criminal charges since 2000, according to Poughkeepsie Journal archives.

Former longtime state Sen. Vincent Leibell, who had represented parts of Dutchess, gets an annual $70,000 pension. He pleaded guilty in 2010 to trying to influence a grand jury investigating corruption and to filing false tax returns.

Convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion, William Paroli Sr.’s 2013 pension was more than $40,000 last year, according to SeeThroughNY, a nonprofit government-transparency website. The former Dutchess election commissioner and GOP chairman of the county and town committees died in March.

The state Comptroller’s Office said the Knapps had not applied for their pensions as of earlier this month, and their annual payouts had not been calculated.

Using the comptroller’s pension projection calculator and unaudited information provided by the office regarding their pension tier, retirement age, service credit and final average salary, Fran Knapp could collect about a $32,257 annual pension.

Knapp, 61, earned $74,713 in her last 12 months in office, which ended in November 2013, when she was forced to resign. Also a former Dutchess County legislator, she served almost 24 years in public offices and was in the second tier of the pension system.

Fred Knapp earned $63,218 in his last 12 months of public employment. According to official records, he had eight years of service credits and is part of the pension system’s tier 4.

His pension could be $7,683, according to the comptroller’s projection tool.

However, he has been employed for about 20 years in various government roles, including as a county legislator, assistant to the county executive and legislature chairman. An audit of his service may mean he is eligible for a larger pension.

Fran Knapp also received a $12,931 payout for unused vacation time from Dutchess County, according to county spokeswoman Colleen Pillus.

Knapp was paid for the maximum 45 days. She claimed 50 unused days.

Her 94-count indictment contained accusations ranging from absentee-ballot manipulation to forging a signature on an election document involving her husband’s campaign finances, among others.

Fred Knapp is accused of processing 64 checks to American Express totaling $390,178 from Town of Beekman accounts to cover expenses on a credit card used by himself, his wife and his daughter, according to the Dutchess County District Attorney’s office.

In a separate matter, the Town of Beekman recently sued several of its former officials, including Fred Knapp, accusing them of exposing the town to legal action costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The lawsuit, filed in state Supreme Court, alleges that in 2010, former Town Supervisor Dan French, Knapp and then-Attorney David Sears conspired to breach a contract the town had with Laberge Group of Albany in order to hire one of its employees, Curt Lavalla.

As of June 9, Knapp’s attorney had yet to file a response to the allegations he provided “guidance and instruction” to Lavalla, which ended with a $132,000 lawsuit verdict against the town.

© 2014 Poughkeepsie Journal

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