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Strengthening ethics in Albany

New York’s ethics watchdog is developing its legislative agenda for 2024. The Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (COELIG) is New York’s latest regulator of ethics and lobbying. Governors Spitzer, Cuomo, and now Hochul, all overhauled the state’s ethics watchdog agencies soon after entering office. The latest version grew out of Governor Hochul’s insistence that a new regulator be established that, in her plan, would be sufficiently independent of political influence. COELIG’s predecessor entity, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics advanced by Cuomo, had been roundly criticized as anything but independent. 

Under COELIG’s mandate, the agency is required to hold a public hearing and develop changes to further strengthen accountability of public officials and the state’s mammoth lobbying industry. The agency has developed for comment largely technical fixes to the law and last week held an informal roundtable meeting that allowed civic organizations to comment on their proposals

The agency’s draft proposals were issued under a cloud as a result of litigation brought by former Governor Cuomo. The former governor has sued to block COELIG’s investigation into whether the Cuomo $5.1 million book deal – approved by the former ethics agency – violated the state law that prohibits the use of public resources, such as the governor’s staff, to be used in making money outside of one’s public job. The former ethics agency had concluded that the former governor did just that and COELIG was conducting a follow-up investigation into whether to agree with that analysis. 

Some civic groups argued that COELIG’s agenda should include measures to further strengthen the agency by enshrining it in the state Constitution. Such a move could not only create a powerful ethics watchdog, but it could also expand the agency’s authority in significant ways. 

One such way would be through a constitutional amendment to establish ethics standards and an independent enforcement agency. If approved by voters, such an amendment would make it clear that members of the new commission must be chosen outside of the state’s most powerful elected officials (which is essentially the case now) but could also addresses the problem of ethics oversight of the legislative branch. Legislative branch ethics are overseen by the Legislative Ethics Commission, an entity whose membership is not only chosen directly by the legislative leaders but includes legislators themselves. Yup, you heard that correctly: Legislators are overseeing the ethics of their colleagues and themselves. The rationale for the two separate entities is the constitutional principle that the powers of the executive and legislative branches be separate. Having two separate bodies will remain a key defect unless there is a constitutional change. 

While legally distinct from the ethics and lobbying oversight, a second issue is enforcement of the state’s campaign finance laws. 

Plainly put, New York’s campaign finance system allows conflicts of interest. Some brazen examples include that elected officials can solicit campaign dollars from lobbyists and their clients during the legislative session and that those elected officials controlling decisions on which entities receive governments contracts can receive contributions from them as well. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. A number of states limit contributions from lobbyists. Many states place restrictions on campaign contributions from lobbyists, particularly during the legislative session. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 28 states have restrictions on contributions by lobbyists or campaign donations during the state’s legislative session. New York is not one of them. 

In addition, there can be no doubt that those seeking government contracts simply should not be able to use their wealth to influence the awarding of such contracts. All too often, the decision making of awarding government contracts has been influenced by the showering of campaign contributions on those who make the critical decisions over how to spend the public’s money. 

One does not have to look far to find examples of “pay to play” scandals in New York. The most obvious recent example is the “Buffalo Billion” scandal, but there have been others both in New York and in other states. Allowing vendors to make campaign contributions not only can undermine public confidence but can also adversely impact state spending. If a small vendor believes that contributions can make the difference and that company can’t make such donations, they may choose to not participate in the bidding process. The lessening of competition for government contracts can lead to inflated spending. 

Shifting responsibility for enforcing campaign financing from the State Board of Elections (which is controlled by the two major political parties) to an independent, professionally-run, ethics watchdog could curb some of the most egregious – though legal – examples of “pay-to-play” contributions and thus reduce New York’s political corruption risk. We all deserve that.

Blair Horner is executive 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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