With one good-government leader calling this session Albany’s “Watergate moment,” a lawmaker from the Hudson Valley has introduced an ethics reform package trying to create distance between those who seek to influence the law and those who make the laws. Her effort comes a few months after the former Senate and Assembly leaders were convicted of corruption.
Democratic Assemblywoman Sandy Galef this week introduced 15 bills, divided into three categories: power, ethics and transparency. She says accountability in these areas is the hallmark of good governance.
“We all know that we’ve had plenty of issues with my colleagues in state government doing the wrong thing, and I’m proposing a lot of bills that would help to correct that, to make it less possible to abuse the system.”
The proposals include new provisions that would create “pay-to-play” rules for government contracts; detail conflicts-of-interest for lawmakers’ family members; ban lobbying efforts by political consultants; and require registration and disclosure for all firms that work with elected officials and outside clients. Galef says among the most crucial is placing a firewall between political consultant and lobbyist.
“We have somewhat merged lobbyists with political consultants. And what’s happened here is people help to run a campaign, get to know a legislator, and then go back and lobby them,” Galef says. “And we just have too many cozy opportunities here in state government and we need to correct it. A lot of other states have made many of these corrections before and we need to do the same.”
Senate sponsors of this bill include Independent Democrat David Carlucci. Republican Terrence Murphy sits on the Senate Ethics Committee, which hasn’t held a formal meeting in seven years. He needs to look more closely at this particular reform before deciding its merits but, overall, says reform is needed.
“We have to restore the public trust back into us and the only way of doing it is by making stronger ethics reform for ourselves to abide by. And, to be quite honest with you, it should have been done a long time ago, a long time ago, and you wouldn’t have had all these problems,” Murphy says. “So until people get caught with their hand in the cookie jar, then all of a sudden you want to restore it?”
Murphy has his eye on two reforms, one of which has passed in the Senate and is among Galef’s bills – terms limits of eight years for house leaders and committee chairs. He also is a co-sponsor of the Senate version of requiring the forfeiture of pension and retirement benefits from elected officials convicted of felonies.
“Those two, I believe, have got serious piranha teeth that would make people think twice about losing their possible pension that they take from the state,” Murphy says. “And term limits, we’ve already passed it at least with regards to leadership roles because that’s where it becomes a problem when people have been in a role for so long that they know the ins, outs, upside-down and backwards and sometimes get themselves in trouble.”
“What I’m trying to do is get to the monies that are sent out from the state in state memorandums, legislative initiatives and other types of grants and be sure that there’s no conflict of interest and that there’s transparency with everything that is in our state budget or is attributed later on during the year,” Galef says.
Democratic Assemblyman Tom Abinanti says laws already are on the books to stem what he believes is the overarching problem.
“What the legislature needs to do is make sure that the laws are clear, that the misuse of power, the leveraging of power for personal gain is clearly illegal,” says Abinanti. “The laws say that today. If they need to be clarified, then we need to clarify them. That is the issue.”
He would focus on any of Galef’s bills that address this. And Abinanti would like to see the following.
“I believe that the one thing that’s missing is whistleblower protection,” Abinanti says. “We want to make sure that we encourage good people to report bad acts to the prosecutors so that people who violate our laws are appropriately prosecuted.”
Republican Senator John Bonacic appeared with Galef when she unveiled her package. He believes there is political will to enact lasting government reforms. Bonacic says one of his bills would help increase the efficiency of legislative operations, by allowing bills to "carry over,” or keep their place on the legislative calendar between the first and second year of a 2-year term. Galef is carrying the bill in the Assembly.
According to a Siena College poll released February 1, 89 percent of New Yorkers say corruption in state government in Albany is a serious problem; 53 percent call it very serious; and two-thirds say corruption is a serious problem among legislators from their area. Galef believes her proposals will work to address the public’s concerns.