The Albany Times Union - May 31, 2009
It's become clearer than ever in recent weeks that the ethics reforms New York attempted in 2007 need reforming. Gov. David Paterson's proposal to create a new ethics commission is a commendable first draft of how an effective system should look. Mr. Paterson envisions a more balanced board. He also offers an innovative idea that would add a necessary degree of separation between state officials and the panel that would investigate allegations of misconduct by those officials and the people who work for them. As we have said before, the current Commission on Public Integrity should be scrapped. The panel's members are all directly appointed or nominated by state officials. That's too direct a tie between the commission and those who may themselves come under the commission's scrutiny. Moreover, the governor has far too many appointees on the panel -- seven of the 13 members. There is no legitimate reason for one official to command a majority, or even a formidable minority. Mr. Paterson has a better idea: a five-member Government Ethics Commission that would replace the Commission on Public Integrity, and a Government Ethics Designation Commission that would appoint the ethics commission's members. That removes key officials who control virtually all of the state government from the appointment of the ethics commission. State leaders instead would appoint the members of the designation commission, a 10-member body that would seek out on its own candidates for the ethics commission. The only major problem with Mr. Paterson's proposal is that it again would give the governor an edge in the process. Of the designation commission's 10 members, four would be appointed by the governor. There is no compelling argument for that. Seven members -- one each chosen by the governor, Assembly speaker, Senate majority leader, the two legislative minority leaders, the comptroller and attorney general -- would be perfectly adequate.
Mr. Paterson also proposes to fold the Legislative Ethics Commission, a body appointed solely by legislative leaders to police the Legislature, into the Government Ethics Commission. He would also give the commission authority over campaign finance issues, an area previously overseen by the state Board of Elections. Both the Legislative Ethics Commission and the elections board have long been viewed as ineffective and designed more to serve politicians than watch over them. Such an ethics commission's authority would be strengthened by several bills percolating in the Senate to increase disclosure requirements on legislators' business relationships, reduce contribution limits for lobbyists and state contractors, and tighten up the absurdly lax rules on personal use by politicians of campaign funds. Now, with the session ending June 22, the question is whether all this is just for show, or whether the governor and Legislature are serious enough about cleaning up Albany to make ethics reform a priority. We will, hopefully not in vain, hold our breath.