Statutes will get scrutiny in Bruno case opening today
The Albany Times Union by JAMES M. ODATO - November 2, 2009
As the trial of former Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno begins today, state ethics laws, as much as the powerful Republican leader himself, will be on trial. Prosecutors have shown they intend to dissect New York's public officers law and disclosure laws, and many onlookers are eager to see the weaknesses in those laws laid bare. "I always felt the disclosure laws were lacking in transparency and given the rules on outside employment ... you needed the corresponding disclosure into those relationships," said Michael Garcia, who stepped down at the end of 2008 as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. His office became the most aggressive to prosecute Albany lawmakers in corruption cases in years and won convictions through guilty pleas. Garcia said the Bruno case will be a positive thing for Albany. "I always felt we were close to reform -- one more case, one more event would quite possibly put it over the edge to real reform," Garcia said. "None of those cases ever went to trial. Maybe a public airing of the rules and facts will cause people to re-engage in the reform debate."
New York's ethics codes aren't the worst.
The state received a "C" grade in an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity of standards required of state lawmakers nationwide. The state's history suggests public outrage over corruption scandals can propel action on ethics laws. After exposure of Democratic Party racketeering in the 1980s, state lawmakers created the integrity laws now in place after voters and leaders pushed for change. With the passage of time showing those laws to be inadequate, many lawmakers, public policy experts and government reform advocates are focusing on the Bruno trial to spark meaningful reform. The use of the federal honest services statute against New York elected officials already caused a rethinking of financial disclosure laws this legislative session. A plan passed in the Assembly stalled and compromises are under negotiation. Bruno, 80, of Brunswick, is a 32-year Senate veteran who rose to lead the chamber from 1995 to 2008. He gave up his powerful post and quit amid a federal investigation of his outside business interests. He is charged with not fully disclosing his consulting activities and representation of investment companies that involved people and groups having business before the state. His activities made him millions of dollars for barely doing any work, according to federal investigators, and the income did not have to be disclosed on financial forms lawmakers must fill out every year.
Indeed, New York does not require disclosure of business clients, sums of money earned privately, or even how the money is earned. Some states require such disclosure. A few require lawmakers, even lawyers, to name clients. This summer, lawmakers began attempts to update the Ethics in Government Act of 1987. The 22-year-old legislation was a response to scandals that rocked the Democratic Party and climaxed with the suicide of Donald Manes, the Queens borough president under investigation in a kickback scheme. The dramatic Manes story became national news. Well-known Syracuse Mayor Lee Alexander was under investigation for his own kickback scheme and pleaded guilty to charges in 1987. Assemblyman G. Oliver Koppell, who later was appointed attorney general, led a committee that recommended the ethics legislation that became the backbone of the "landmark" laws governing public officials. Koppell, now a New York councilman, also is a lawyer with an outside business practice. He said he would want to protect client identities but doesn't mind if income from law practices becomes a disclosable detail. "It's good to review things in light of experience and problems that may have evidenced themselves," he said. His bill more than two decades ago arose when the public, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and newspaper editorials demanded reform. It passed in both houses easily, causing some lawmakers to weep at its substance. Yet Cuomo vetoed it, saying the rules didn't go far enough. After negotiation, lawmakers worked out a compromise. They persuaded him to agree to a separation-of-powers argument. Cuomo instituted a tougher ethics program for executive branch officials policed by an ethics commission. The Legislature set up its own regulator, a Legislature-controlled body.
"The Legislature's ethics agency is a toady agency, a disaster," said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. The commission and the in-house ethics panel set up by the Legislature has shown little evidence of policing members, although its operations are mostly confidential. Horner said it has been too easy for lawmakers to go afoul: "If you're based on an honor system and you see others gaming the system, you say: 'Why can't I go one more step beyond what is allowed?' It's the Wild West without U.S. marshals, it's the lawlessness of state ethics where state officials wittingly or unwittingly break the law." Attempts to create new laws broke down in September when the Senate squabbled over passing a plan advanced by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and co-sponsored by Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua. The measure calls for revealing ranges of income of lawmakers. It would require lobbyists and clients of lobbyists to disclose business relationships with public officials and set up a new executive branch ethics commission and new lobbying commission. Gov. David Paterson is pushing for what he calls a better plan. The Senate failed to pass the bill after Sen. John Sampson proposed an amendment that included tougher campaign finance enforcement. Missing from the legislation is the broad disclosure of the special interest group relationships and clients of lawyers, such as Silver, who is a practicing attorney. "Are we going to require that lawyers and real estate brokers disclose their clients? How far do we go? And accountants having to disclose their clients?" said Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, D-Rome. "Then this is no longer going to be a legislature that allows outside clients. That would have a monumental impact on whether we remain a part-time legislature or if we transition into a full-time legislature." Lawyer Mark Davies, who runs New York City's Conflicts of Interest Board, said the disclosure requirements need a major overhaul, such as rewriting disclosure forms so they solicit more details that point out the potential for conflicts. Many doubt whether the Legislature has the will to make heavy revisions. Barbara Grumet, a veteran ethics professor who worked at Russell Sage College, is now a conflict-of-interest watchdog at a City University of New York technology college. "I think we need more disclosure, but it's politicians who decide on changing the rules and setting up the mechanisms for changing the rules," she said. "I'm not optimistic we're going to get greater disclosure." James M. Odato can be reached at 454-5083 or email@example.com.
When: The trial is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. Monday, 1st floor courtroom, U.S. District Court, 445 Broadway, just north of the bottom of State Street, Albany.Best bet: Arrive by 8:30 a.m. First-come, first-served seating for about four dozen. Tip: Leave cell phones, computers, cameras and recording devices at home. Be ready to pass through metal detectors at the door and hand over most electronic devices to security personnel for safe-keeping. Parking: Either bring plenty of quarters for on-street meter spaces or find lots such as Columbia Street Garage at Columbia Street between Broadway and Water Street. -- James M. Odato