Senator said she is sending checks back to the state to be returned to taxpayers

In a video posted on her senator Facebook page Tuesday, state Sen. Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua showed two uncashed stipend checks she is sending back to the state. The checks are part of a controversy that began this month after a New York Times report revealed that some senators had been incorrectly listed as committee chairs in state payroll documents to receive greater stipends.

“I am hoping that once the checks make it to the comptroller’s office I will get a receipt showing that they have been returned,” said Helming in the video, holding the two checks. The first check was issued March 22; and the second check, April 5. In a previous Facebook post last week, Helming said the two checks total $10,133.35 after taxes.

Last week, Helming told the Messenger she hadn’t cashed the checks because she didn’t know why she received them and thought there was a mistake. As it turned out, Helming got the checks because she was falsely listed in payroll documents the Senate submitted to the state Controller’s Office, as chair of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee. Helming is vice chair of that committee.

“I have not, and will not, accept any payment for my work as Vice Chair of the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction committee. My office is in the process of returning these uncashed checks to the taxpayers of our state,” Helming said in an official statement last week.

Helming is the only one of at least six senators who received the questionable checks, who is returning those checks, according to reports. At least three Republicans and three members of the Independent Democratic Conference, a faction of rogue Democrats who ally with Republicans to give the Senate its majority, were awarded stipends as committee chairs though they are actually vice chairs, the Times reported.

Legislators receive a base salary of $79,500 a year. The stipends, also known as "lulus," are in addition to base salary. By law, each legislator can receive only a single stipend. So if a senator is a committee chair and also eligible for a stipend because they are in another Senate leadership position, they receive only the higher of the two payments. To avoid letting some of the higher-paying committee stipends go unclaimed, state records show Senate payroll officials instead listed at least six vice chairs as chairs of the committees when they submitted information to the state comptroller’s office — triggering payments like the ones Helming and others received.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, told the Associated Press that stipends were offered to vice chairs based on seniority, expertise and agreements with members.

State Senate leaders and counsel for the Senate Republicans say the stipend practice is legal and constitutional. Senate Democrats and the Senate Democrats' lead counsel contend the practice violates the law. Watchdog groups including Common Cause New York and Center for Judicial Accountability, Inc. are also questioning the practice. Some are seeking an investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office.

Helming was asked last week if she thought the stipends were unethical. “I was told it was legal and constitutional, that is all I’ll say,” she said.