In Albany, Finger Pointing Over Ethics Reform

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Tensions over an ethics reform bill that’s being negotiated in private between Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders spilled into the open this week, as finger pointing began over which side was holding up the legislation.

Cuomo has said repeatedly his main goal, in addition to balancing the budget, is to “clean up Albany.” For weeks, the governor has been negotiating behind closed doors to try to achieve an ethics reform agreement with the legislature that includes creating an independent panel to oversee the legislative — as well as the executive — branches of government and a requirement that state lawmakers more fully disclose the sources of their outside income.

“There are discussions ongoing,” Cuomo said recently. “Do we have an agreement yet? No.”

Both majority party legislative leaders have a lot at stake in the negotiations. Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos are both practicing attorneys and partners in prominent law firms. Silver’s firm specializes in personal injury law, and assembly democrats have traditionally had close ties to the trial lawyers lobby. Skelos’ law firm has a lobbying arm that represents clients before the legislature. Up until now, neither has disclosed the names of their firms’ clients.

Cuomo has been seemingly patient with the behind the scenes process, but there are signs that it’s becoming strained. Silver confirmed a New York Post report that he’d agreed to disclose his outside clients, putting pressure on Skelos to also consent. But Skelos denied that he’s the one holding things up.

“I don’t think that’s correct,” said Skelos, who said the bill under negotiation will have “extensive disclosure.”

Skelos suggested it was really the assembly speaker who was dragging his feet, saying the speaker has also said he’s for a property tax cap, something the Senate has already approved but hasn’t produced a bill.

“We haven’t seen any action on that yet,” said Skelos.

Silver, when told about Skelo’s remarks, said he hadn’t seen any Senate ethics bill.

“Last year, we passed an ethics bill, and I think his comment was, ‘It wasn’t enough,’” said Silver.

That ethics bill was ultimately vetoed by former Governor David Paterson, who said it was incomplete.

Nevertheless, Silver said he is not “casting blame.”

Both Silver and Skelos said when the bill is finished and passed into law, the public will see their client lists.

State legislators work part-time in New York, and it’s perfectly legal for them to hold second jobs. Many are attorneys, and for years they’ve claimed that they can’t disclose their law firm’s clients because it would violate attorney client privilege. That thinking is changing, according to New York State Bar Association President Steve Younger, who said there are ways to make public clients names without breaking that code.

“There’s much more information publicly available today about your clients,” said Younger. “A lot of firms have them on their Web sites, there’s a lot of access to who your clients are from electronic filings and court systems.”

Younger said it’s more important that the public be certain that there are no inherent conflicts between legislators’ duties at the Capitol and their law firm clients’ interests.

“The public needs to know whether a public official is doing their own business or doing the public’s business,” said Younger.

For now, Cuomo is using the carrot rather than the stick. He has not tried to embarrass or shame lawmakers into compliance, and he so far has not publicly released his own version of an ethics bill. But during his campaign for governor, Cuomo threatened to call a Moreland Act Commission and investigate the legislature if he does not eventually win cooperation on ethics reform. For now, that stick is being held in reserve.