News Coverage on Ethics
Ethics Reform, Albany StyleEditorial Board
After years of scandal in Albany, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and leaders in the Legislature have managed to reach agreement on an ethics billthat could help change how business is done in New York’s chronically secretive and corrupt state capital.
For the first time, the state’s part-time lawmakers would be required to reveal to the public how much they earn from outside business interests and the names of their clients and their customers doing any business with the state. Failing to disclose clients could result in a referral to a prosecutor with the potential for a $10,000 fine, enough to make even the Albany crowd take notice.
The bill would also establish a broad, searchable database of all firms and individuals with business before the state — a way to cross-check lawmakers’ disclosures. It would set up a method for reducing or denying state pensions for future public officials convicted of crimes related to their public offices. And it would expand disclosure requirements for independent campaign contributions that have become the real political muscle in elections.
While these changes are commendable, the new 14-member Joint Commission on Public Ethics created to monitor elected officials, legislators and lobbyists is so deeply flawed in its structure as to be wholly ineffective.
There has long been a need for an independent commission to investigate ethical problems in Albany. But this version is so clearly driven by the aim of protecting those in office that it is certain to lead to more paralysis.
Under the bill, the six members would be appointed by the governor (three from each major party) and eight members appointed by the legislative leaders (four each from the two parties). No commission member could have served in a statewide or legislative office in the past three years, but that restriction would not ensure independence.
In fact, any investigation would require consent from at least eight members of the commission, with at least two yes votes by appointees from the same party and branch of government as the subject of the investigation. This provision would essentially give legislative leaders the ability to squelch any investigation or even any public release of the allegations.
The evisceration of the commission was part of a deal struck with Republicans who were said to be nervous that Democrats would use the new commission to go after them. But a toothless commission would only add to the cynicism about Albany’s shameful state.
Finally, missing from this bill is a tightening of New York’s loose campaign finance laws. The bill also does not address the need for an independent reapportionment commission to draw new districts fairly — a change that needs to be enacted swiftly. Governor Cuomo, who put ethics reform at the top of his campaign agenda last year, called the bill a good first step. Clearly, more are needed.