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By the Letter of the Law

State Sen. John DeFrancisco’s decision to take a payout is especially egregious, for a number of reasons.

A few years back, state Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) took the common sense approach toward pensions: A pension is for retirees.

“It’s really that simple,” DeFrancisco said back in 2012, when he became eligible to collect both a pension and a salary from New York, a practice called double dipping. “I should retire when I’m ready to retire.”

That’s an approach most of us would agree with.

Now, he’s changed his mind. After a few years of eyeing a perverse loophole in state law that permits double dipping, DeFrancisco, upstate New York’s highest-paid legislator, couldn’t let that money sit on the table any longer. Last week, while you were getting ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve, the senator began a new career as a fiction writer, submitting papers that made it appear that he retired, only to return to work again after a day off the payroll.

This fancy dodge will allow him to ring in a New Year in which he can collect his salary, his ample bonus for serving as the senate Finance Committee chair and now a pension based on his service since 1992.

DeFrancisco is not the only one in Albany to take advantage of the loophole in state law, which reeks so badly that the legislature closed it 20 years ago. Only veterans like DeFrancisco and Assemblyman Bill Magee (D-Nelson) get the chance to hold their nose and take the cash, because they started working for the state before the loophole was closed. The rest of us shake our heads and our fists at a practice that everyone knows is wrong, even if by some fluke it happens to be legal.

Another one of their colleagues who is cashing in on the double-dip loophole? State Sen. Tom Libous, of the Binghamton area, who is under indictment for lying to federal investigators.

But DeFrancisco’s decision to take the payout is especially egregious, for a number of reasons.

One, he has been a vocal advocate for cutting pensions for lesser-paid public employees. In 2012, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation establishing higher employee contributions to pensions and lower payouts, DeFrancisco applauded the move. At that time, he called the pension cuts for new hires “a real, substantive change from the status quo which will help to provide fiscal stability for taxpayers and local governments while putting New York on a path for a stronger, more sustainable future.”

All of which was true — the change is expected to save Onondaga County alone a billion and a half dollars over 30 years — but those savings come from workers who make far less than DeFrancisco. And among the reforms he praised in 2012 were provisions against double dipping.

Two, DeFrancisco earns more outside income than most senators, all the while continuing to insist that his legislative work is a full-time job.

Three, and worst of all, DeFrancisco hides behind his wife in explaining his own choices. His statement justifying his decision tracks nearly word for word with that of Magee and Libous (R — Binghamton) as they wrap their greed in a cloak of chivalry.

“If I did not file and died while in office,” DeFrancisco said in a prepared statement, “my wife of 46 years would not receive my valuable retirement that I have earned over the last 37 years. Instead, she would receive a modest lump sum benefit. The older I have gotten, the more I have come to understand that I cannot risk depriving my spouse of what she is entitled to, and what I have earned.”

If anyone brought his wife up during a campaign (assuming someday he might actually face an opponent at the polls), DeFrancisco would rightfully screech indignantly about family members being off limits. Former Rep. Dan Maffei’s baby, the Obama daughters — they shouldn’t be brought into their fathers’ politics. So, Senator, leave your wife out of this.

We can all read your financial disclosure forms. They make it abundantly clear that your wife’s future is secure, and she is not the dependent spouse you portray as you seek our sympathy.

Finally, DeFrancisco shouldn’t take the payout because he promised us a few years ago that he wouldn’t. Nothing material has changed in this case; it’s just that the lure of a few extra bucks finally outshone what for one brief shining moment he held to be a principle.

In a time when the defined benefit pension is something most American workers will see only in their rearview mirror, to watch a wealthy state senator add to his ample salary with a pension he would deny the rest of us is, to put it mildly, nauseating.

Ed Griffin-Nolan

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