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Good-Government Groups Cry Foul Over Latest Ethics Bill Signed By NY Gov.

WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

An ethics bill New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says will increase accountability and transparency was signed into law Wednesday. But good-government groups say the measure is just a band-aid on chronic corruption in Albany.

The governor proclaimed the measure to be a significant reform, a “first-in-the-nation” response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which prohibits restrictions on independent political spending.

The law draws a line against candidates and independent groups coordinating their efforts and imposes stricter disclosure requirements for lobbyists and advocacy groups.

The bill requires some non-profits openly identify large donors, a move the New York Civil Liberties Union believes will discourage people from donating to groups involved in controversial advocacy, such as Planned Parenthood or gun rights groups, out of concern they would be publicly identified. The NYCLU says the law is unconstitutional and could challenge it in court.

Barbara Bartoletti, the legislative director for the New York State League of Women Voters, says the bill was poorly drafted, crafted without any hearings or input and rushed through at the end of session. "Nothing has changed here in New York, since Citizens United, so that was not really an issue. We applaud him for going into that national issue; however, the parts of the bill that are so onerous are very broad, very opaque and vague, and actually would be a problem for not-for-profits. It would not impact the League. The lowered disclosure limits are still too high for the League, since the League is a volunteer organization, but it will seriously impact many not-for-profits who are doing very good charitable work, and are now going to have to disclose all of their donors and all of their in-kind contributions, which is going to create quite a problem for unsuspecting charities."

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, sees the law as a "classic political misdirection ploy."  "...where, on the one hand, there's a real problem in Albany, which is political corruption. And yet, the governor and the legislative leaders basically did nothing about that, but they cobbled together something else, which they say deals with problems, but the deal was hammered out in secret, behind closed doors. We don't really know what the problem is that the governor and the legislative leaders are trying to solve, but this legislation will do nothing to respond to the corruption identified by the U.S. Attorney's Office."

Horner says there are lots of things on good-government groups’ wishlists. "Limits on outside income, similar to the way Congress works, so that lawmakers are not tempted to use their public office for private gain. Limits on the so-called loophole for limited liability companies, which allow limited liability companies to have much higher campaign contributions than other businesses. And limited liability companies were at the heart of both the Skelos and Silver scandals. And then lastly, truly independent enforcement. I mean, part of the problem we've seen in Albany is that, other than the U.S. Attorney, there really hasn't been the sort of independent enforcement of the state ethics laws that we believe needs to be done.”

Cuomo defended the measure this week at theState Fair in Syracuse, telling reporters "everything in ethics is about disclosure."  "We passed a law, which is the first in the nation, that has unprecedented disclosure of donors. If you wanna participate in political system, fine, you can give funding, but people have a right to know who you are. And if you don't want people to know who you are, now that makes me nervous. Because, what is your motivation that you don't wanna be disclosed. So the ethics bill is a major step forward. Is it everything? No. And ethics, in many ways, is like other activities in life, you know, it's an ongoing pursuit, right?  That old line 'you can never be too rich, you can never be too thin.' Well you can never be too ethical."

Government-reform advocates wanted Cuomo to veto the bill. They point out that the new law won't close a loophole allowing limited liability companies to circumvent campaign finance rules.

The NYCLU issued a statement that says in part "Cuomo has chosen to ignore the causes of systematic corruption in Albany, and instead wrongfully punish organizations' proper and lawful collaboration to more effectively advocate for their causes."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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