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Blair Horner: Pushback Against Ethics Reform

A consistent theme in Albany’s unceasing parade of ethics scandals has been the abuse of power: Lawmakers using their public position to enrich themselves personally.  As U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara put it while commenting on his successful prosecutions of the former Assembly Speaker and former Senate Majority Leader, “Both of those cases, by the way, were awful and sad stories. No one says that those two men never did anything good for their state, but they threw it all away by forgetting that their jobs we’re not meant to be vehicles for massive personal profit.”

Not surprisingly, addressing this problem is central to the ethics reform debate.  But the “talking points” of opponents are already emerging.  Essentially, some lawmakers are arguing that it is good for lawmakers to have outside jobs in order to better inform policy choices.

This is a classic straw man argument.

No one is arguing that individuals with expertise should be prohibited from holding office.  That would be absurd.  However, reformers are arguing that while holding power, lawmakers should be focusing on their public job, not their private ones.

Governor Cuomo is a lawyer.  Imagine how long the line would be if he was allowed to set up a private practice.  The line would be long and filled with wealthy powerful interests, looking for legal “help.”

Attorney General Schneiderman is also a lawyer.  He regulates much of the real estate industry.  Guess who would show up if he were allowed to open a private law practice?

Neither of these men is allowed to do so.  The most obvious reason is that they run sprawling governmental enterprises and it takes time to do it right.  But another important reason is to remove a clear conflict of interest.

State lawmakers argue that they are part-time, that their staff sizes are relatively small.  Thus, they should be allowed to moonlight.  But the temptation to use their public power to enrich themselves is still there. 

The U.S. Attorney found that the former Speaker used his legislative perch to enrich himself to the tune of a cool $4 million.  Sadly, his is not the only case.  Former AssemblymemberSeminerio was convicted on influence-peddling charges related to his operation of a private consulting business that used his legislative position to generate income.

In 2004, former Senator Guy Velella pled guilty to bribery charges for taking money to secure bridge painting contracts as part of his outside legal work.

Why allow that temptation?

The Congress has already acted.  In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the Congress drastically restricted outside income for its members.  As the Congressional panel responsible for drafting the new rules stated, “substantial outside income creates at least the appearance of impropriety and thereby undermines public confidence in the integrity of government officials.”

The same logic applies to Albany today.

Lawmakers with outside jobs must have to put them aside while they serve as public servants.  It’s not a radical idea – statewide elected officials and the Congress live with similar rules.  And if you are a firefighter, a police officer or a teacher, you have to put those jobs aside in order to be a lawmaker.  Why should the small percentage of legislators who are lawyers and other professionals get a sweeter deal?

Unfortunately, only silence has been heard on the “debate” over ethics.  That is likely to mean that a small number of well-compensated legislators plying their profession on the side have jammed up the debate.  Only the governor can break that logjam. 

And the governor can only succeed if he takes the fight out of the dark rooms of the Capitol and has it in full public view.  Nearly 90 percent of New Yorkers agree that Albany’s ethics is a problem.  If the ethics debate is open, the public has the chance to weigh in.

Over the next few weeks, New Yorkers will see if the governor has the interest and the power to break that logjam.

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.

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