Senator says she may not return the money to New York state

State Sen. Pam Helming, R-Canandaigua, on Tuesday blamed the media and Senate Democrats for outrage over questionable stipends she and six other senators received for chairing committees they do not chair.

“I was told it was legal and constitutional,” Helming said in a phone interview Tuesday from Albany. Helming claimed that reports of her receiving $12,500 in checks for chairing the Crime Victims, Crime and Correction committee — which she does not chair — were overblown and politically motivated.

Helming is vice chair of the committee but was falsely listed as committee chair in payroll documents the Senate submitted to the state Controller’s Office, according to reports. In an official comment, Helming stated: "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."

But hours after the official statement, Helming said in the phone call Tuesday she might not return the checks. She said she hasn’t decided what she will do with the money.

“I don’t know if I’ll return it to New York state,” she said, adding she might use it for programs fighting the heroin and opioid epidemic.

When asked more about the checks — and to see the uncashed checks — Helming said: “I am in Albany and the checks are at my home in Canandaigua. So I can’t provide you those.”

Helming said she received the checks sometime after the state budget passed in April. She didn’t cash them because she thought there was a mistake, she said. Helming said she thought the stipend might be for her position as chair of the Legislative Rural Resources Commission. She said it’s standard for senators to receive stipend pay by paper check, while her regular Senate pay is direct deposit.

The revelation that seven state senators received thousands of dollars in questionable stipends prompted calls for criminal investigations from two government reform groups. Those included Reclaim New York, which said in a statement: "Let's call this what it is: fraud. This was the deliberate defrauding of New Yorkers, and another stain on a state legislature tarnished by corruption."

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