Assemblyman Joseph Lentol (D-Brooklyn) really knows how to bring home the bacon.
Lentol, the influential chairman of the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Codes and leader of the chamber’s Brooklyn delegation, secured a total $11.2 million in controversial funding allotments known among lawmakers as “member items,” according to data released by the Assembly.
Not even Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) can top that. Silver — one of state’s most powerful politicians and the man responsible for doling out the funds to Assembly members — roped in $8.7 million.
Good government groups decry the funds, which total $200 million annually and are split between the governor, the Senate and the Assembly, as little more than political pork. Lentol disagrees.
“There are some pork-barrel projects in there,” Lentol said. But “the pork is miniscule compared to the total,” he added.
A Fountain of Funds
Most of the funds lassoed by Lentol went to organizations related to his committee’s work on public safety and criminal justice, according to Assembly data. The Legal Aid Society of New York, for example, got about $1 million and the Osborne Organization, a group advocating alternatives to incarceration, received about $718,000. Dozens of Brooklyn community groups got smaller amounts.
Meanwhile, Lentol, who has represented much of North Brooklyn since 1972, distributed only $291,000 solely under his own name. Members can request funding for particular causes by themselves or with other lawmakers.
Lentol lent his name to more than $829,000 in requests made by the Brooklyn delegation and more than $10 million in requests largely related to the public safety duties of his committee.
Lentol said he had no idea his projects got more money than Silver’s. He attributed the difference to his role negotiating with the Republican-dominated Senate over public safety-related budget issues. If the Assembly and Senate could not agree on how much money to give to a group whose work Assembly Democrats backed, Lentol would request funding for the organization in a member item, he said.
Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs, said the process of allocating funds through member items was symptomatic of political dysfunction in Albany.
“It’s the volume of the requests, irrespective of the benefits, that’s the problem,” Muzzio said.
Blair Horner, the legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, agreed. “Typically the criteria is not based so much on the merit of the proposed project as it on the political considerations,” Horner said.
A ‘Collaborative Process’
But Eric Lane, a professor at the Hofstra University School of Law and a former chief counsel to the State Senate’s Democrats, noted most of Lentol’s member items were for programs related to the pol’s committee — and not pork “in the traditional sense.”
“He should get credit for this,” Lane said. “It’s not something he should get attacked for.”
Silver’s spokesman, Charles (Skip) Carrier cautioned, against reading too much into the numbers or comparing members’ hauls. That’s because the member item requests are rarely an individual effort for the Assembly’s Democrats, he said.
“It’s not just about one person. It’s almost always a collaborative process,” he said.
The detailing of the member items was spurred by a lawsuit filed by the Albany Times Union. Silver has pledged to include an accounting of member items in the regular budget, starting this year, Carrier said.
Lentol said he has no problem with the new policy of full disclosure of member items.
“I haven’t looked at the them all, but I don’t have any problem with anyone looking at mine,” he said.