Thomas Galbato is a longtime Auburn-area businessman. He's owned salons and been a member of community organizations. He continues to operate Tom Thumb Drive-In, a popular seasonal ice cream stand overlooking Owasco Lake.
He's also a state government employee. Since 2002, he's been employed as a part-time community liaison for Assemblyman Gary Finch. His salary is modest — $8,851 annually, or $340 every two weeks. He's eligible for several taxpayer-funded benefits, including health insurance and a pension.
But documents obtained by The Citizen during a two-month investigation — and comments made by Finch, a Springport Republican — raise questions about Galbato's role as a legislative aide. And these questions point to a lack of transparency and oversight with the state Legislature's hiring and payroll practices.
A review of The Citizen's archives and other online resources found no public references to Galbato's work for Finch or other lawmakers. Finch said Galbato is a driver and photographer. He preemptively dismissed any suggestion that Galbato's position is a no-show job.
"That's not the case," he said during the first of three phone interviews on the matter. "He's at events. He's been seen at events. He becomes a nuisance at some of the events with the photography."
Galbato was contacted by The Citizen for this story. He briefly spoke by phone before asking The Citizen to email him questions about his employment. The questions were relayed to Finch, who said any inquiries about Galbato's job history should be directed to him.
Longtime legislative aide
Galbato, 81, began his career as a state legislative employee in the 1980s, according to personnel records obtained from the Assembly through a Freedom of Information request.
In 1983, then-Assemblyman Clarence "Rapp" Rappleyea hired Galbato as a junior administrative aide. His starting salary was $5,000. Galbato said that he also worked for former state Sen. Tarky Lombardi.
Rappleyea was in office until 1995. Lombardi retired from the Senate at the end of 1992.
Galbato's personnel records show he was on Rappleyea's staff until the end of 1992, when the assemblyman's district was redrawn and no longer included Cayuga County.
Following his service with Rappleyea, Galbato wasn't an Assembly employee for nearly a decade. When then-Assemblyman Dan Fessenden took office in 1993, Galbato didn't join his staff.
Before becoming an assemblyman, Fessenden worked with Galbato on Rappleyea's staff. But that's all he could recall about Galbato's legislative work history.
"When I came into office, I don't know that it was ever even a point or a consideration what his role was," Fessenden said.
Despite not being employed by Fessenden, Galbato continued to have financial connections to Cayuga County's state legislative delegation.
In 1993, Fessenden and newly elected state Sen. Michael Nozzolio shared office space at 268 Genesee St. in a building owned by Galbato. The arrangement was referenced in an article published by The Citizen in 1993 detailing an issue involving the property and the need for a wheelchair ramp.
Directories and stories published in multiple newspapers, including The Citizen, indicate Fessenden's district office remained at 268 Genesee St. for at least five of the six years he served in the Assembly.
More about the rental agreement isn't known. The Assembly's record retention policy mandates that lease and rental contracts are retained for up to seven years, which means the chamber no longer has records pertaining to Fessenden's office.
Galbato's career as a legislative aide resumed in January 2002, according to his personnel records. He was hired as a community liaison by Finch, who succeeded Fessenden in 1999. The part-time position paid $5,000 and required Galbato to work 35 hours every two weeks.
Finch said he's known Galbato for many years. They both were members of the Auburn Jaycees, a now-defunct community organization. They have also been involved in the local Republican Party. Galbato was chairman of the Owasco Republican Committee and served a stint as the county Republicans' finance chair.
Galbato, Finch noted, has been a longtime activist on issues related to drunk driving. Galbato's wife, Carmella, was killed by a drunk driver in 1979. After her death, he founded Curb Alcohol Related Mortalities. The organization remains in existence and funds scholarships every year for two Auburn High School graduates.
What also made Galbato appealing as a potential staffer, Finch said, are his photography skills and ties to the area.
"He has a camera that he uses all the time," he said. "The pictures are all over Tom Thumb. And he's got his fingers on the pulse of the community in many ways."
Finch added, "I felt it was valuable for the amount of the investment that I had to make in him, which was a modest salary. I don't think he's ever gotten a raise."
However, Galbato's salary has increased during his 15 years with Finch's office. His 2015-16 personnel record shows he was slated to be paid $8,213 a year for his part-time position.
Finch later confirmed his 2017 salary — $8,851 — after consulting with the Assembly personnel office.
A job — with benefits
As a state legislative employee, even one who's listed as a part-time aide, Galbato is eligible for various fringe benefits — the most significant of which is health insurance.
An Albany Times-Union story published in March described how state legislators hire family members, friends and wealthy individuals to serve as community liaisons. Once they become state employees, they're eligible for benefits. To enroll in a state health insurance plan, employees must work at least 17.5 hours per week.
Galbato's personnel records and time sheets indicate he typically works 18 hours per week and 36 hours every biweekly pay period.
State agencies have been reluctant to share whether employees are actually receiving health insurance. Federal privacy laws have been cited as the main reason for not disclosing that information.
But Finch revealed, after consulting with the Assembly personnel office, that Galbato is enrolled in the Empire Plan, one of the health insurance options available to state employees. Those enrolled in the plan don't have to pay a deductible for in-network services.
For those enrolled in the Empire Plan, the state covers 88 percent of the cost. The cost to the state can vary depending on whether the enrollee is receiving Medicare. For individual coverage under the Empire Plan, it costs agencies $11,359.80 per enrollee. For those receiving a Medicare-primary individual plan, the cost is $5,083.92.
The employee contribution for an individual plan is $39.91 every two weeks, although the cost of Galbato's coverage could be slightly different because he's eligible for Medicare.
An added benefit of the Empire Plan: Retirees can receive lifetime coverage if they have at least 10 years of state government service. Galbato, who has logged 25 years as a state employee, would be eligible to continue receiving the state health insurance benefit if he were to retire from his position.
What does Galbato do?
A job description for community liaisons in the state Assembly isn't available. Michael Fraser, a spokesman for the Assembly Republican conference, said the responsibilities of a community liaison "are determined by each individual Assembly member."
That flexibility allows members like Finch to determine what, if any, duties the community liaison will perform.
In his first interview with The Citizen, Finch initially estimated that Galbato worked no more than six or 12 hours a week. He said Galbato may drive him to an event or attend a function on his behalf. He noted, though, that Galbato has a "language issue." (Galbato was born in Italy.)
Galbato's main task, according to Finch, is photography.
"A lot of those photographs either go on the website that we have or they'll go to people that are in the photos as kind of a courtesy," Finch said.
He added that Galbato's photos are "occasionally" used for taxpayer-funded mailers, but not often because those responsibilities are usually handled by a professional photographer from Albany.
Time sheets obtained by The Citizen, however, raise questions about Finch's description of Galbato's work.
On June 10, 2016, Finch broke his ankle. In interviews with the The Citizen last year, he explained that the break was so severe that he needed to rehabilitate the injury at The Commons on St. Anthony in Auburn. He stayed there until Aug. 20.
Galbato's time sheets, however, show that he continued to work his usual schedule — six hours a day, three days a week — while Finch was rehabbing his injury. Finch said Galbato would bring him paperwork and he'd visit two or three times a week. Since it was during the summer months when Tom Thumb is open, Finch said Galbato would usually visit after the restaurant closed for the night.
Records from the first four months of 2017 show there were at least 20 days that Galbato said he worked a six-hour shift when Finch was actually in Albany. Finch's whereabouts were confirmed using roll call votes and member travel ledgers published on the Assembly's website.
When asked in a follow-up interview how Galbato, who has been described as a driver and photographer, logged so many hours when his boss is in Albany, Finch responded, "That's a good question."
"He's certainly not driving me around," he said. "He does not drive me around very much even when he was doing it. Mostly it's the photographic stuff and then he would be putting together those pictures."
Finch said Galbato's additional duties involved editing photos and clipping articles out of the newspaper. The articles were then sent to constituents with a note from the assemblyman.
"I would have to say, other than that, I think he probably, of course, is very busy monitoring the pulse of whatever is going on," Finch said. "Those are the jobs. It's not much of a job, that's for sure."
Tim Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center of Public Policy, questioned the necessity of having state lawmakers hire employees for constituent service positions. (Hoefer is a former state legislative staffer and worked for Finch.)
"We elect our state legislators to do a fairly specific job, which is to carry out the business of the state," he said. "They're there to pass a budget and pass laws pertaining to running the state of New York. You have municipal elected officials and employees who are there to deal with what the Legislature sort of deems as constituent service, and that's the work that they do out of their district offices."
Hoefer views Galbato's role with Finch as part of "normal operating procedure" in the state Legislature. Other members of the Assembly and state Senate have community liaisons or employees who serve similar roles.
While it appears the practice won't change anytime soon, Hoefer emphasized the need for more transparency from the Legislature regarding its paid staff.
"If we, as taxpayers, are going to be OK with having these representatives out and about, we need to have full access to what they're doing and how their time is being spent," he said.
Galbato, according to Finch, suffered a heart attack on May 14 — Mother's Day. Finch said in separate interviews that Galbato hasn't worked or submitted a time sheet since the medical emergency.
"I haven't had him at an event at all," Finch said. "He's had a stent put in. I haven't even seen him. I've talked to him multiple times on the phone, but I haven't seen him since he had the heart condition."
However, Galbato submitted time sheets after he reportedly had a heart attack. The documents, which were obtained by The Citizen through a Freedom of Information request, show he reported having worked May 15, May 16 and May 17.
The following week, he used personal and vacation time to take four days off. He returned to his legislative duties May 30 and 31, according to his time sheets.
Finch, as Galbato's supervisor, signed the time sheets.
Galbato's days as a state employee may be numbered. Finch said Galbato has informed him that he will resign effective July 31, although no official notification has been received.
In addition to the health care benefit that comes with the state job, Galbato is also eligible for a public pension. The state comptroller's office said he became a member of the state retirement system on March 8, 1983. He has accumulated 15.5 years of service credits as a Tier III employee.
Membership in the state retirement system is mandatory for full-time employees. It's optional for Galbato and other part-time workers.
The comptroller's office doesn't provide estimated benefits for those enrolled in the retirement system. If Galbato elects to receive a pension, he would get a monthly benefit. He could designate a beneficiary to receive the pension after his death.
As of Monday, the comptroller's office said it hasn't received a retirement application from Galbato.
If Galbato follows through on his plan to resign, Finch said he'll miss him.
"He's a valued employee but deserves his retirement," he said.