Next Up: Maintaining Ethics in Albany

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With the budget out of the way, Albany is turning its attention to new ethics rules for legislators. Governor Cuomo and Speaker Sheldon Silver say they’ve worked out a deal, helped in part by scandal after scandal after scandal in the New York statehouse.

“It’s about time,” laughed Bob Stern, a long-time disclosure advocate and president of the Center for Governmental Studies in California, who helped write the California law that requires legislators to disclose their major clients.

The issue of client disclosure has long stymied the ethics reform process in New York, where the top dog of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, has resisted disclosing his clients at the Weitz & Luxenberg law firm.

“We have basically signed off on an agreement with the governor,” Silver told WCNY's Capitol Pressroom this week. “It will have greater disclosure. It will have disclosure of any conflicts or anybody doing business with the state, or representing people doing business with the state in whatever field of endeavor they’re in. And it will have an independent investigative body.”

As of now it's still unofficial, there is no bill to be voted on and the Senate's position is unclear, but rooting out conflicts of interest in the statehouse is a priority for the governor. Cuomo campaigned on ethics reform and is making it a priority, telling lawmakers during his budget address that they need to pass a bill to "restore your credibility and restore your integrity."

Good government advocates have been calling for more transparency for years, and Cuomo isn’t the first to try to reform notoriously evasive lawmakers in Albany. Former Gov. David Paterson championed reform too, and he even vetoed an ethics bill last year that he felt was too flimsy. That bill didn’t include client disclosure nor an independent ethics oversight panel.

The deal floating right now in New York is stronger, but since there's nothing on paper, it’s still undetermined exactly how ethical standards will be enforced—by a new independent panel or the two separate panels currently keeping an eye on state lawmakers, the executive branch and lobbyists.

Who’s In Charge Now

In New York, the nine member Legislative Ethics Commission polices the activities of legislators. Notably, the members of the commission are actually legislators themselves, or legislative appointees. The Public Integrity Commission oversees the governor, other statewide officeholders, and lobbyists. The PIC is made up of 13 members, seven of which are selected by the governor. Good government advocates would like to see these two commissions under one independent umbrella—which is not currently on the table in the package purportedly supported by Silver and Cuomo. (Right?)

The Legislative Ethics Commission doesn't post much on its website. There's last year's annual report and a “notice of reasonable cause” of violations by former Senator Hiram Monserrate for taking contributions for his Legal Defense Fund from interests who had had business with the legislature. You will not find the disclosure forms that are already required under New York State law - more on that in a moment.

What Legislators in New York Need to Disclose

Not much. Lawmakers are required to disclose their sources of income loosely, but not the actual amount they make outside of their jobs as state lawmakers. Attorney lawmakers are not required to disclose who their clients are, or who the clients of their spouses are. Furthermore, most of the information the commission collects is hidden from the public—there is no electronic access to the information.

These gaps (and more) led the Center for Public Integrity to stamp New York State with a lowly “C” grade in its disclosure report card in 2009.

How NY's Legislative Ethic Requirements Stack Up To Other States:

In a number of other states, legislators are required to do more than lawmakers in New York, particularly regarding income disclosure and public access to information. For example, across the river in New Jersey, (not exactly a state known for having squeaky clean lawmakers) all legislators have their annual disclosure forms posted online.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 18 states require disclosure of associations with lobbyists—New York is not one of them. That might have shed some light on the corruption in the most recent scandal with State Sen. Carl Kruger and lobbyist Richard J. Lipsky.

The NCSL has nifty charts in which you can compare the requirements for different states. Forty-one states provide external oversight of their ethics laws through an ethics commission established in statute or in the constitution.  Seven states—Alaska, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York and Washington—have more than one commission that oversees different branches of government.

Twenty-one states require lawmakers to disclose at least some information about the clients they represent. 

Some states even require disclosure of spouse’s income, or event adult children who are living at home, all to prevent a potential conflict of interest in the actions taken by a public official.

New York does require legislators to disclose their connections to state agencies and it does require disclosure of creditors and debtors and gifts over $1,000. But as a member of the public, you have no way of easily seeing that information, since it’s not online. “A member of the public may obtain a copy of the statement by mail, fax or e-mail, upon the payment of a nominal copying fee,” the legislative commission says.

Appetite For Tighter Ethic Standards Is Growing

Speaker Silver’s shift to accepting some client disclosure demonstrates how the tide is shifting towards transparency across the country.

People are clamoring for more transparency, says Peggy Kearns, who heads of the NCSL ethics project.

“The movement is more toward specifying the income, not necessarily the dollar amount, but where are the categories of where a public official’s income comes from. And the second piece of that is disclosure has to be disclosed to an entity, say the Secretary of State’s office, where the public has easy access to the information. Otherwise, disclosure is just an empty gesture,” said Kearns. 

For Bob Stern, the man who helped write the ethics law in California, client disclosure is the bottom line of ethic standards for legislators.

“I don’t need to know how much they have in their savings account,” he said. “It is very important for the public to know the economic interests of legislators so they can see if there’s a conflict of interests.”