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Tonko defends himself against double dipping accusations

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Albany/HV: Tonko defends himself against double dipping accusations
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Congressman Paul Tonko is defending himself against claims he's double dipping on tens of thousands of dollars in state pension payments. Our Solomon Syed has more.

CAPITAL REGION, N.Y. -- According to the Empire Center for New York State Policy's website, Congressman Paul Tonko collects almost $65,000 a year in retirement from New York State, despite earning more than $174,000 while working as a U.S. Congressman.

"People who have qualified by their years of service are given an opportunity for that pension," said Tonko.

In fact, there's nothing illegal about what Tonko's doing and the Democrat counters he earned the payment by virtue of 36 years as a public servant.

"I don't think people reject that pension," reiterated Tonko. "They earn it, they commit to an industry."

According to a report by the New York Daily News, at least eight other members of New York's Congressional delegation agree. Both Democrats and Republicans receive five-figure pensions from government jobs they held before joining the House of Representatives.

Still, Tonko's payments are the highest and his opponent in the November election, Ted Danz, says while it may be legal, collecting the pension in the midst of the recession is wrong.

"A pension to me is for somebody who's retired, somebody who's not working," said Danz. "$64,000 is more than most people earn in a year when they're working."

Danz says he wouldn't accept the payments, turning this into a budding campaign issue, one that could eventually lead to reform.

"Whether or not anything could be done retroactively, my guess is the answer to that is that you couldn't," said Russ Haven, New York Public Interest Research Group Legislative Counsel. "But, going forward, it's certainly the kind of thing that the legislature could address."

One possibility could be to reduce payments or eliminate them altogether until the person collecting the pension permanently retires from office.

That's a debate for another day as Tonko insists he applied for pension back in 2008, before he knew he would for his current job in Congress.

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