NY Legislature’s new ethics reform quickly panned

admin Contributor
Font Size:

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York lawmakers are backing the latest reform of state ethics and campaign finance laws, yet the Paterson administration says the proposed legislation falls short of the governor’s plan for sweeping changes.

The agreement backed by the Assembly and the Senate requires lawmakers to disclose more of their outside business interests and income. It also forces more disclosure by lobbyists, including which lawmakers they are trying to influence, and creates an enforcer of campaign finance laws.

Senate Conference Leader John Sampson, a Brooklyn Democrat, called the agreement the “most sweeping ethics reform Albany has ever seen.”

“People want change. We’re going to give them change,” Sampson said. “People want us to play by the rules — we’re going to play by the rules.”

The agreement doesn’t include measures sought by Democratic Gov. David Paterson, including term limits, disclosure of lawmakers’ private law clients and specific outside income, and a process to keep lawmakers from appointing the board members who would oversee ethics in the Legislature. It also doesn’t address redistricting, which good-government groups have long complained assures power for the majority party in each chamber.

“The governor is stunned that legislative leaders would be so disrespectful to the public that only one week after he proposed a sweeping and real overhaul of the ethics system in Albany, they would try to pass this off as anything more than election year window dressing,” Paterson spokesman Peter Kauffmann said.

The Legislature is expected to pass the measure this election year and send it to Paterson, who can sign it into law or veto it. He has said only that he’ll work with lawmakers to make it a meaningful law.

“It is a welcomed improvement over the horrible status quo,” said Dick Dadey of the good-government group Citizens Union.

Susan Lerner of Common Cause/NY, a good-government watchdog, criticized the measures.

“The argument that this is the best that can be achieved, in the current political climate, is a sad statement of the inability of the Legislature to distinguish between small steps and the sweeping reform the situation requires,” Lerner said.

Recent corruption convictions include former Senate leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, in December; the fraud conviction in June of former Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, a Democrat; and then-Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Democrat, who was convicted in 2008 of misusing state workers for personal duties. The state inspector general also accused the current ethics regulator — the Public Integrity Commission created by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer in the ethics reform of 2007 — of leaking information in its investigation of a Spitzer aide to the administration.

Senate Republicans also complain the new enforcer proposed for the Board of Elections would undoubtedly be a Democrat, chosen by Democrats who control the Legislature and every statewide office. He or she would have the power to open any campaign investigation and Republicans on the board would be powerless to stop it, under the proposal.

Even supporters of the deal each said the bill isn’t perfect but called it a down payment on stricter enforcement to come. But in a press conference, they said these reforms could actually be passed by lawmakers who have proven reluctant to policing ethics in New York.

“It’s very hard to get anything done in Albany,” said Democratic Sen. Eric Schneiderman of Manhattan, a lead sponsor of the package. “It’s not the last ethics bill, but it’s a huge step forward.”

David Grandeau, the former state lobbying enforcer, called it “a solid single that maybe can we stretch into a double.” He said that’s far better than most past efforts in which good-government groups swing for a home run but strike out.

The Brennan Center of New York University Law School, which found both promise and “serious concerns” in the bill, criticized the Legislature for negotiating the package in private and planning to adopt it quickly.

“It would be deeply ironic if a bill touted as a step toward transparency and openness in government were crafted exclusively behind closed doors,” the center said in a prepared statement.

“It’s just a sham and that’s not good enough,” said Michael G. Cherkasky, chairman of the Public Integrity Commission. “You can’t have self-policing.”