ALBANY Despite scrutiny from prosecutors, the daily stipends received by state lawmakers for the legislative session that ended last month soared 32 percent compared to the same period in 2013, state records showed.
READ: Summaries of per diems
The legislators got nearly $2.4 million from January through June for their daily expenses while at the Capitol, including for meals, lodging and mileage. For the 2013 legislative session, they accrued $1.8 million, a review of records by Gannett's Albany Bureau showed.
Lawmakers get $172 a day when they are in Albany for meals and lodging, and the system has been criticized for being abused and lacking oversight.
One former assemblyman, William Boyland of Brooklyn, faced federal charges for allegedly submitting invalid expense reports, while another, William Scarborough of Queens, had his office raided in March by the FBI over per-diem payments, though he has not been charged.
Critics have long railed against the per-diem system because lawmakers aren't required to provide receipts to verify their stays in Albany.
"It's built on trust that is not verified," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a good-government group. "So there needs to be greater scrutiny of these reimbursements to ensure they are legitimate. It's an honor system that some have abused."
Last year, it had appeared that the per-diem spending had cooled amid a closer eye by federal investigators. The $1.8 million in 2013 was a 28 percent drop compared with 2012.
But the figures jumped back up this year, the records from the state Comptroller's Office showed. The figures can also fluctuate depending on when lawmakers submit their reimbursements and when they are proceeded by the state.
Overall in 2013, lawmakers were reimbursed $2.9 million for their expenses, which includes mileage and tolls, records showed. For all of 2013, Scarborough and ex-Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, D-Cheektowaga, Erie County, led the Assembly in expenses at about $28,000 each.
Gabryszak resigned in January amid sexual harassment complaints.
In the Senate last year, Sens. John Sampson, D-Brooklyn, and Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, received the most: about $24,000 and $21,000, respectively. Both are former Senate majority leaders, and both are under indictment on corruption charges unrelated to their per diems.
Sen. Joseph Robach, R-Greece, Monroe County, led the Senate in per-diem expenses during the legislative session that ended in June, receiving $17,400 in reimbursements.
Robach spokesman Steve Barz claimed that on an annual basis Robach ranks about 17th in the 63-member Senate for travel reimbursement.
"This ranking is a result of his perfect session attendance record, timely and transparent travel voucher submissions and one of the longer commutes to the capitol from western New York," Barz said in a statement.
Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, ranked 10th on the list at about $14,000, while Sens. Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette, Seneca County, ranked 11th with $13,650 and Thomas O'Mara, R-Big Flats, Chemung County, ranked 13th with $13,131.
In the Assembly, Assemblyman Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, received the most at $20,706, followed by about $20,000 each for Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, D-Kenmore, Erie County, and Assemblywoman Earlene Hooper, D-Nassau County.
Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, D-Mount Vernon, ranked seventh at about $19,000.
Hooper has faced questions about her per diems over the years. She received more than $350,000 in per diems and travel expenses between 2000 and 2010, a review by Gannett's Albany Bureau in 2010 found, the most of any lawmaker.
The federal government sets the daily rate for the 213-seat Legislature. Legislators also receive reimbursement for mileage and tolls. Lawmakers who live within 30 miles of the Capitol do not receive per diems.
Legislators have defended the system, and there hasn't been a wide push among them to change it. They have said the money covers their food and lodging when they are in Albany – just like any business expense. Lawmakers earn a base pay of $79,500, and they haven't had a raise since 1999.
Some said they have to come to the Capitol when the Legislature is not in session for meetings and events. But they can also be cost conscious while in town.
The New York Times in March reported that some lawmakers stay in a modest Comfort Inn outside Albany during the legislative session at a rate of $64.95 a night. What they don't spend each day out of the $172, they can keep tax-free.
Some lawmakers choose not to accept the per diems.
Assemblyman Frank Skartados, D-Milton, Ulster County, drives the 80 miles each way to and from the Capitol during the session. He said reimbursements should be provided to lawmakers who travel long distances to the Capitol. But he said the system needs to be reformed.
"The per diem does have a role to play for those who certainly cannot make the trip back home, but I do believe we need to rethink the way we go about it," Skartados said. "I do think people are given an opportunity to do the wrong thing."