Meet the Top Private Earners Among New York Lawmakers

A handful of state legislators made far more from second jobs than they did representing their constituents, a New York Focus analysis found. Find your rep in our database.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   March 1, 2023
From left: Anthony Palumbo, Keith Brown, John McDonald III, Michael Norris, Stephen Hawley. | Maia Hibbett / New York Focus

AT $142,000 A YEAR, New York state lawmakers are now the highest paid in the country. But some aren’t satisfied with this sum. And the pay raise they gave themselves in December doesn’t stop legislators from earning as much as they can outside of Albany — at least for now.

A New York Focus review of lawmakers’ most recent financial disclosures — which date back to 2021 — found at least seven who earned more that year from side jobs than their legislative salaries. The number could be as high as 15: State law does not require lawmakers to disclose their exact outside incomes, only ranges, making accounting from public records imprecise.

As many as 23 senators and assemblymembers may need to rein in their outside earnings by 2025 if they intend to stay in office. By then, a new $35,000 cap on outside income will take effect, as a condition of their recent pay hike.

The top outside earners in Albany skew heavily Republican. Some, like Assemblymember Stephen Hawley — who reported earning up to $690,000 outside of Albany in 2021 — see it as a point of pride, setting them apart from “career politicians.” Others, like Long Island Assemblymember Keith Brown, have drawn criticism on ethical grounds, for representing corporate interests with a stake in public policy.

Most members treat the legislature as a full-time job, but the longstanding lack of an outside income cap means they don’t have to. And they don’t go out of their way to advertise their second jobs to the public. To get a full picture, New York Focus individually reviewed each of the 213 assemblymembers’ and senators’ disclosures, which most lawmakers fill out by hand with varying levels of detail and clarity. We then cross-referenced their answers against income brackets listed on a separate page.

A bill currently pending in the legislature aims to make the disclosures more accessible, requiring lawmakers to submit them in a searchable electronic format — an enduring demand of Albany reform groups.

There are limits to the data captured by a one-year review: A lawmaker who sold their home, for example, might appear to earn more than one who has a steady salary from a second job. But by and large, the sources of outside income reflected here are relatively consistent year to year. (New York Focus’s tally excludes retirement income. It also excludes new members of the legislature, who didn’t file a disclosure last year.)

So who were the highest earners? And where on the list do your representatives fall? Here’s a look at the top five — and a full list you can search for yourself.

Anthony Palumbo • Republican, Senate District 1 (eastern Long Island) • $551,000–$655,000 (joint with spouse)

Senator Anthony Palumbo, who represents the eastern tip of Long Island, leads the pack of roughly two-dozen lawmakers who earn extra cash practicing law for private clients. In Palumbo’s case, it’s more than half a million dollars, earned jointly with his wife, fellow attorney Tracy Karsch Palumbo.

The couple’s firm, Palumbo & Associates, takes on a wide variety of cases ranging from divorces to car crashes to construction contracts. Although Tracy is listed on the website as the main contact for the firm, records suggest that Anthony does most of the litigation: A search in the state courts database shows that he has 23 active cases, while she has two.

Senator Palumbo is a veteran of the court system, having once served as assistant district attorney for Suffolk County. He left the position in 2004 to go into private practice, and has maintained the practice throughout his time in the legislature. (Before being elected to the Senate in 2020, he served eight years in the Assembly.)

The Palumbos’ legal income has fluctuated over the years; 2021 appears to have been their most lucrative year since he joined the legislature. According to his disclosure, the Palumbos earned between $550,000 and $650,000 from their firm in 2021, and an additional $5,000 to $20,000 from a shell company named after their business address. (The sign posted outside suggests this could be from subletting some of their office space to another law firm, Zabell & Colotta PC.)

One frequent client has been Almas Construction, a North Shore-based contractor that filed a string of lawsuits against New York City, alleging it was stiffed out of payments for Sandy reconstruction work.

There is no immediate indication that Palumbo’s legal clients have been significant donors to his campaigns, or that he’s sponsored legislation that would benefit them.

Stephen Hawley • Republican, Assembly District 139 (western New York) • $430,000–$690,000

With up to $690,000 in outside income in 2021, Stephen Hawley may well be the highest-earning member of the legislature. Hawley — whose district includes Genesee, Orleans, and part of Monroe County, west of Rochester — is a former farmer and has sold insurance since the 1980s.

In 2021, though, he earned most of his income from real estate. Having sold his business to a local insurance firm in 2020, he proceeded to sell his longtime offices to the firm the next year, netting him upwards of $250,000. He stepped back from selling insurance himself, earning no more than $20,000 on commissions — a fraction of what he disclosed the previous year — but continued to reap at least $150,000 in dividends from the merger.

Far from being shy about his work outside the legislature, Hawley prides himself on his entrepreneurship.

“In contrast to many of the career politicians that populate the New York State Assembly, Steve brings a unique perspective to the debate in Albany — that of a small business owner,” reads his Assembly bio. Since being elected to office in 2006, it says, he has “fought tirelessly against downstate special interests in defense of our Western New York Way of Life.”

“Steve knows that the key to New York’s economic revival is to let the free market do its job,” his bio continues. “In order to save New York State, we must return to the principles of capitalism upon which our nation was founded.”

Keith Brown • Republican, Assembly District 12 (central Long Island) • $455,000–$570,000

Commercial real estate lawyer Keith Brown, whose activities New York Focus detailed last week, remains a contender for the highest individual earner in the legislature. With at least $455,000 in 2021 income — most coming from his law practice, with a few thousand more coming from a family firm — his minimum earnings are higher than anyone but Palumbo’s, whose outside income is joint with his wife. Brown’s legal work also raises pointed ethical questions, as he makes more representing major corporate clients than his own constituents.

Brown denied any conflict of interest when reached by New York Focus and declined to answer further questions.

John McDonald III • Democrat, Assembly District 108 (Albany area) • $350,000–$520,000

Another small business owner, Assemblymember John McDonald III was the longtime steward of Marra’s Pharmacy in Cohoes — just north of Albany — which his grandfather founded in 1931.

For most of the last decade, McDonald reported that he paid himself between $75,000 and $100,000 for running the store — comparable to what he was earning in the legislature. His 2021 windfall came from selling the business, which netted him at least $250,000, according to his latest disclosure. He also reported salaries from the pharmacy and its holding company, totaling $95,000 to $150,000.

McDonald has sponsored a range of legislation related to his business over the years; so far this year, he is sponsoring five pharmacy-related bills. And he has backed federal legislation by US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to lower prescription drug prices.

McDonald is also the Assembly sponsor of the bill requiring lawmakers and candidates to file their disclosures electronically.

Michael Norris • Republican, Assembly District 144 (western New York) • $176,000–$300,000

Another lawyer who has maintained his private practice while in office, Assemblymember Michael Norris is a partner at Seaman Norris, along with father and son duo Daniel and Brian Seaman. Norris has kept working at the general practice firm throughout his time in the legislature, where he represents portions of Niagara and Erie counties, northeast of Buffalo.

Norris reported earning $100,000 to $150,000 at the firm during his first four years in office, exceeding his legislative salary for at least some of that time. His legal income dipped to half that amount in 2021, according to disclosures, but a combination of investment income and the sale of a beach house on Lake Ontario more than made up the difference.

Norris does not appear to have any active cases in state courts. Most of the cases that appear online date back to his time as attorney for the town of Lockport, and it is not clear from available records what kinds of clients he represents today.

APART FROM BROWN, none of the lawmakers listed here responded to requests for comment on their outside incomes. They are due to file their next round of disclosures in May, covering 2022. Stay tuned.

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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