Group with more power would replace two entities; legislative fate of bill in doubt
The Albany Times Union by Casey Seiler - May 27, 2009
ALBANY, NEW YORK — Gov. David Paterson will introduce legislation to replace two of the state's ethical watchdog entities with a single, smaller panel whose members would have greater insulation from political concerns. But with only a handful of weeks remaining in the legislative session, it remains to be seen if the proposal will make it back to Paterson's desk for his signature. The Government Ethics Commission would replace the two-year-old Commission on Public Integrity, which in recent weeks has became embroiled in controversy over its response to charges that its former executive director leaked information on an investigation to the administration of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer; it would also supercede the Legislative Ethics Commission, a body that critics have called lackluster.
"It's clear that those institutions have been ineffective and are not working," Paterson said Tuesday morning in a news conference at the Capitol. In the case of the Legislative Ethics Commission, the governor noted that a number of elected officials had been tried and even sentenced for crimes without receiving any sort of significant public sanction from the panel. Paterson's plan calls for a five-person panel whose members would be selected by another new entity, the Government Ethics Designation Commission. The CPI has 13 members, the majority selected by the governor; the LEC has nine, all selected by majority and minority conference leaders. Under Paterson's plan, the 10-member Designation Commission would be comprised of four members chosen by the governor and one each by the state comptroller, the attorney general and the four leaders of the majority and minority conferences in the Legislature. The governor's four appointees would have no more than two members from a single political party, and must include a retired judge. The end result, Paterson said, would be "a process that will serve the public interest instead of self-interest." The Government Ethics Commission would have its own enforcement power and the option to refer cases to the attorney general. It would also handle oversight and enforcement of campaign finance laws, which are currently overseen by the state Board of Elections, and state agencies' compliance with open meetings law.
Conspicuous in their absence from Paterson's news conference were the two men who will need to sign off on Paterson's plan: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith. The governor said he would be discussing the proposal with the leaders in the near future. Tuesday afternoon, Smith released a measured statement noting his chamber was currently examining similar ethics reform legislation recently put forward by Sen. Daniel Squadron, D-New York City. Squadron's proposal calls for a single nine-member panel chosen directly by elected officials — three by the governor and one apiece by the legislative leaders, comptroller and attorney general. Good-government advocate Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group said he was waiting to see the details of Paterson's legislation. Horner, who has expressed support for Squadron's plan, said the structure of the new panel was less important that ensuring its members' independence from the people they would be obliged to investigate, and from each other. Paterson's ethics plan adds one more potentially contentious bill to the Legislature's packed to-do list — which includes everything from gay marriage to mandate relief — for the five weeks left on the legislative calendar. "If they're serious about getting it done, they can get it done by the end of session," Horner said. Casey Seiler can be reached at 454-5619 or email@example.com.