Albany Ethics Deal Is Seen as Having Weaknesses

by
June 7, 2011

By  and THOMAS KAPLAN, The New York Times

ALBANY — Here is how ethics enforcement works, Albany style.

Under a deal announced on Friday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders, the 14 commissioners running a new state ethics board could vote 11 to 3 in favor of an investigation, and the vote could still fail.

Further, commissioners appointed by the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, could effectively block investigations of any Democrat in the Legislature, while commissioners appointed by the Senate majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, a Republican, would have similar power over investigations of any Republican.

And while there was an agreement that lawmakers who are convicted of felonies could lose their pensions, it applies only to those who have not been elected yet. Current lawmakers can rest easy: if they are found guilty, they will keep their pensions.

Still, while the ethics deal is viewed as having shortcomings, good-government groups almost universally endorsed it, saying that it was a major improvement. Now, the Legislature polices itself, with almost nothing to show for it — the existing Legislative Ethics Commission almost never takes action against lawmakers or makes information public.

The new structure will, for the first time, combine regulation of the executive and legislative branches under one roof. A new agency called the Joint Commission on Public Ethics will subsume the Commission on Public Integrity, which now polices the executive branch.

The plan also includes groundbreaking disclosure rules: for the first time, lawmakers will have to make public how much they earn from outside business interests, and lawmakers who are lawyers will have to reveal their clients.

In a sign of the plan’s complexity, the governor and lawmakers refused to release a draft of the bill, making it difficult to evaluate its full impact because so much will rest on the fine print.

The governor, who championed ethics reform during his campaign, defended the deal on Monday at a news conference in the Capitol with lawmakers.

“We don’t want to create a vehicle for a partisan witch hunt,” Mr. Cuomo said.

“First, you have a constitutional challenge of separation of the executive and the Legislature,” he added. “This is probably the first time in the history of the State of New York that there’s been any joint investigative board. We understand the ethical need for it, and we want to restore the trust with the public, but we also need to respect the constitutional balance.”

Mr. Silver said, “The agreement we have reached today requires more extensive financial disclosure and establishes serious penalties for those who violate the law.”

Mr. Skelos added, “We will increase disclosure of outside income and employment of all legislators and deal with legislators who abuse the public trust.”

There has been no shortage of that lately in New York.

In May, a former Republican state senator, Vincent L. Leibell III, was sentenced to 21 months in prison in federal court after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and tax evasion.

In March, federal prosecutors charged State Senator Carl Kruger, a Brooklyn Democrat, with amassing at least $1 million in bribes in return for political favors. That investigation also swept up another Brooklyn Democrat, Assemblyman William F. Boyland Jr., who prosecutors have said received a phantom consulting job at a local hospital in return for seeking favors for the hospital’s parent company. David Grandeau, a former state lobbying regulator in Albany, reserved judgment on the ethics-rule changes.

“Anything is better than what we have,” he said. “But if we have the same people enforcing those laws, it won’t make any difference at all. The key part of any ethics reform is not the legislation; it’s the people who are going to enforce it.”

To read more, visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/07/nyregion/albany-ethics-deal-has-big-changes-and-thorny-issues.html?_r=1

 

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