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Blair Horner: Ethics Reform - How We Got Here And Where We're Going

In January of this year, then-Speaker of the Assembly Silver was arrested for his alleged abuse of power – using his official position to illegally obtain millions of dollars in outside income.  With that arrest as a backdrop, in February Governor Cuomo organized a speech at New York University’s Law School to announce his ethics reform plan.  The governor had a number of options for addressing the central problems that contribute to New York’s ethical scandals, including:

OPTION #1:  Proposing overhauling ethics oversight.  What is most noticeable about ethics enforcement in NY has been that the U.S. Attorney’s office has been the lead ethics enforcer.  Little ethics enforcement has been done by the state’s ethics agencies: The Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Legislative Ethics Commission.  Both of those agencies have been criticized due to their lack of independence and lack of openness.

OPTION #2: Calling for limiting the influence of Limited Liability Companies (LLCs).  In the U.S. Attorney’s complaint against the former Speaker, it refers to an instance in which the Speaker allegedly inquired if a lobbyist was representing a developer directly.  When the lobbyist said “yes,” the Speaker allegedly stated that there was no conflict since the Speaker was representing the “LLCs.”  In the campaign finance arena, LLCs have provided an easy way for donors to circumvent New York’s campaign contribution limits.

OPTION #3: Advancing the Congressional model of limiting the outside income of legislators.  Ironically, the governor in his NYU speech made the case that the Congressional model was “the best compromise model” for addressing the inherent conflict between lawmakers’ public jobs and their outside occupations.

. . . but that’s not what the governor proposed.

The governor proposed what he called “total disclosure.”  In his speech, the governor stated that “We will propose what we call ‘total disclosure’ – the most extensive disclosure of outside income in the United States of America.”  Will the final deal result in the nation’s most extensive disclosure of outside income?

Sunday night, the governor and the legislative leaders agreed to a budget deal that included what they called, “ground-breaking ethics reform” that included the “nation's strongest and most comprehensive laws for public officials.”  At the time I’m writing this, the bill language has not been released, so there is no way the public can know if that claim is appropriate or political hype.

Obviously, the devil is in the details, but here are some questions that I will want to have answered:

(1) How does the ethics agreement provide meaningful information about lawyer-legislators who are law firm partners or “of counsel,” yet who do not provide services to outside clients, actually do for their pay?  The agreement purportedly will require lawyer-legislators to disclose the names of clients.  What if the lawyer-legislator has no clients?  If such a lawyer-legislator is making big bucks at a firm, shouldn't the public know if that public official is doing work?  In Alaska, lawyer-legislators are required to report the number of hours that they work for the firm.  Will this agreement require such disclosure?

(2) Will the prohibition on the personal use of campaign contributions end its use for legal defenses?  When involved in litigation, public officials are entitled to reimbursement if they win such a case.  Why allow their legal defenses to be underwritten by those who, more times than not, have business before the government?  That alone creates a conflict.  And if the public official wins, why should taxpayer dollars reimburse their campaign accounts?

(3) The agreement apparently contains a compensation commission to set salaries for top executive staff and legislators.  Who chooses these panelists?  How can the public be sure that such individuals are independent?  And what criteria should be used to set salaries?  Will there be automatic pay raises -- something that few New Yorkers enjoy?

And appears that this ethics deal ignores the other options – particularly overhaul of ethics enforcement – mentioned earlier, are those issues off the table?  I have a hunch that the ethics agreement in this year’s budget is not going to be the last word.

The public should “stay tuned.”


Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.