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Ethics Commission Faces Abortion Controversy

New York State Capitol in Albany

A political controversy involving the issue of abortion has erupted this summer at the state’s ethics commission. It stems from whether some not-for-profit groups should be granted exemptions from publicly disclosing their donors. 

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, known as JCOPE, is charged with increasing financial transparency when it comes to politicians and the groups who lobby them.

But they decided, after holding a series of public hearings and months of deliberation, that some not for profit groups, known by their tax code designation as 501 4 (c)s, should not have to disclose their donors, because it might be dangerous. 

The first group to ask for and receive an exemption is the New York chapter of NARAL Pro Choice, the abortion rights lobby group.  NARAL’s Andrea Miller says making the names public could be potentially harmful and discourage contributions. She says there’s a documented, “deeply troubling history” of violence against groups that defend a woman’s right to choose abortion, including murders of abortion providers, like Buffalo obstetrician Bernard Slepian, as well as clinic bombings, arsons and other threats.  

She says recently the group’s Facebook was hit with a “graphic video that was essentially an homage to people who have shot and killed abortion providers”.

“It was genuinely terrifying to staff. We reported it to the FBI,” Miller said. “And a month later this man was arrested for plotting to bomb an abortion clinic in North Carolina.”

But, after the pro-choice group got permission from the ethics commission to keep its donor list private, the Republican Leader of the State Senate objected.  Senator Dean Skelos wrote a letter to JCOPE, asking that the exemption be rescinded because, he said, it could allow NARAL to become a conduit for “anonymous political spending.”

Skelos and other Republican Senators had been at odds with the group during the legislative session over a Women’s Equality Act backed by Governor Cuomo that would in part codify the abortion rights in the federal Roe v Wade decision into New York law.  

NARAL has already promised to spend money to campaign against some GOP Senators who were against the bill.

As the issue became more politically polarized, some ethics commissioners had second thoughts.  At their summer meeting, they voiced reservations about whether any exemptions should have been granted. David Renzi was appointed by Republicans in the Assembly.

“Really, what we’re talking about is potentially tens of millions of dollars to be exempted from review,” Rezni said. “We should have that debate publicly.”

JCOPE Chair Daniel Horowitz, chosen by governor Cuomo, appeared to agree that there were grounds to reconsider. 

“The discussion and allusion to the need for transparency is one that we all share and is very important,” Horowitz said. “It’s the underpinning of our statue.”

The commission put on hold any consideration of all new requests for exemptions.

The Reverend Jason McGuire is with the conservative Christian group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, which is against abortion. His group has also asked for an exemption.

He says donors to his group have been “targeted” by the opposition.

“That makes it very difficult for organizations like ours to get our message out there,” McGuire said, “if donors feel threatened or intimidated.”  

McGuire says because of the new concerns expressed by the ethics commission, his group and others who have asked for exemptions are now on hold, and he says that’s not fair.

“That leaves organizations like ours in limbo,” McGuire said. “While that leaves organizations like NARAL out there touting the fact that they are raising funds for political purposes now, knowing that all of their donors are going to be shielded.”

And he says it calls into question, for him, the impartiality of the ethics commission.  Governor Cuomo has more appointees on the panel than any one faction in the legislature, and McGuire says NARAL and Cuomo worked together to try to get the abortions rights bill passed in the Senate.

Susan Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause,  says JCOPE has to ward against being drawn into political controversies, and should abide by the rules they already set up for granting exemptions, regardless of the policy positions the applicants espouse. She says the standards laid out by JCOPE are “clear.”  

“Those facts have to show a well-founded fear of some sort of harm,” said Lerner. “Not embarrassment, not anything which could be considered to be discomfort.”

The exemption rules don’t apply to Common Cause, because it already discloses its donors on its website.

Miller, with NARAL Pro Choice New York, says she does not have any problem with anti-abortion groups also receiving an exemption from disclosing donors, if their reasons make sense to the ethics commission.

And she points out that Senate Republicans originally approved the provision to allow the very same exemptions that the GOP is now objecting to. 

Miller says, for now NARAL is abiding by JCOPE’s decision to permit them to keep their donor lists private.

“They understood the need to create a balance between disclosure and safety, we appreciate that,” Miller said. “We are absolutely committed to complying with the letter and the spirit of the law.”

The ethics board will reconvene in September, and is expected to continue discussing the matter. A spokesman for JCOPE has already said, though, that NARAL’s exemption from the donor disclosure rule will not be rescinded.

Other groups seeking exemptions from donor disclosure include the New York Civil Liberties Union, which often defends controversial acts of free speech, and the entire coalition of women’s groups that backed Governor Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act, which includes the abortion provision.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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