Blair Horner: Ethics Reform Redux

Feb 9, 2015


In the old “Peanuts” cartoon, Lucy holds the football for Charlie Brown and assures him that this time she really means it, she will hold the football and not pull it away.  So he should charge and kick the football.  And every year – despite having previously seen her pull the ball away at the last minute – Charlie believes her.

And every time, Lucy pulls the football away.

That’s how New Yorkers must feel when it comes to politicians’ promises about ethics reform.   In what has become – sadly – an annual ritual, New York’s leading political figures respond to the arrest, indictment, or conviction of an elected official by calling for sweeping ethics reforms.

And this time, they really mean it!

Unfortunately, what New Yorkers get are, at best, half-measures.

Last week, Governor Cuomo proposed a new 5 Point Plan to bolster Albany’s ethics and promised to use the budget as his leverage to get what he wants.

New Yorkers have a right to be skeptical.  After all, it was the governor who said that he would veto gerrymandered lines in the last redistricting process.  However, the governor then signed off on what has been described as the most gerrymandered lines ever devised as part of a reform deal that does little to change the process in the future.

And it was the governor who, with much fanfare, created a Moreland Act Commission to Investigate Public Corruption and then killed it as part of a budget deal last year that offered little in the way of the comprehensive reforms needed.

While I believe that the governor was serious when he made those pledges, in the triage of policy negotiations with the Legislature, weak deals resulted.  And the parade of politicians doing the perp walk continued.

This time, the governor says he will not accept half measures.  The governor has not yet advanced the actual language of his legislation, but he has articulated his goals.  The centerpiece of the governor’s package is his plan on requiring disclosure of lawmakers’ outside income.

The arrest of former Assembly Speaker Silver has forced a debate over the issue of lawmakers’ outside jobs.  Unlike the members of the executive branch and members of Congress, New York State legislators are considered part-time and can have outside jobs.  The governor proposes that lawmakers fully disclose the sources of their outside income, meaning, for example, that lawyers would have to disclose their clients.

In the former Speaker’s case, the U.S. Attorney has stated that he believes that Assemblyman Silver illegally used his public office for private enrichment by directing state funds to a doctor who was funneling clients to the former Speaker’s law practice.  According to the U.S. Attorney, while the Speaker did no legal work,  this arrangement generated millions of dollars in legal fees. The U.S. Attorney argues that this was a kickback scheme and illegitimate.  Of course, whether any law was violated will be up to the courts to determine, but the arrangement itself has rightly generated public outrage.

Under the governor’s proposal, the Speaker would have had to publicly disclose his clients under the theory that such disclosure would act as a check on lawmakers seeking to game the system.  Essentially, the governor argues that disclosure and public oversight would deter future unethical working arrangements.

The governor’s proposal is surely an improvement, but a better approach would be to follow the Congressional model and just cap the amount of outside income a lawmaker can make.  If the problem is that lawmakers are using their public office for their private gain, simply tell them that they can’t – allowing them to do so openly does not solve the problem.

Moreover, the governor said nothing about improvements in the enforcement of his plan.  Even the best laws require oversight, and an inadequate enforcement will undermine even the best laws.

Any ethics package must include provisions to overhaul oversight of the state’s ethics, campaign finance and lobbying regulation laws.

Here’s hoping that the governor’s plan is just a first step toward enactment of comprehensive ethics reforms.  New Yorkers deserve to kick the football, not have it yanked away one more time.

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

 

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