The New York Times by JEREMY W. PETERS and NICHOLAS CONFESSORE - January 14, 2010
New York’s legislative leaders proposed their own ethics overhaul on Wednesday in an effort to restore public confidence in the wake of recent scandals that have exposed political corruption at the highest levels of power in Albany. The proposal, which would essentially remake the current system that polices the conduct of public officials, would require elected officials to disclose more about their outside income and face stricter oversight by investigative bodies that will have enhanced powers. But the plan was quickly criticized by the governor and others as falling short of what was needed because it would provide no independent oversight over the Legislature and would exclude many lawmakers from disclosing the names of their outside business clients. Gov. David A. Paterson, who last week offered a far more ambitious ethics proposal, denounced the plan, through a spokesman, as nothing more than “election-year window dressing,” and he signaled that he would veto the proposal its current form, throwing into doubt whether change was possible this year. Some government watchdog groups expressed similar reservations, saying the plan would do little to improve a political system that is often condemned as one of the nation’s most opaque and dysfunctional.
Under the proposed legislation, separate oversight bodies would be created to monitor the executive branch, the legislative branch and lobbyists. It was the plan to create two new legislative oversight commissions that drew the most criticism on Wednesday. The panels would consist entirely of members selected by legislative leaders, a provision that some, including members of the Paterson administration, said would render the commissions ineffective. “This proposal does nothing to address the underlying issues that have caused the people of New York to lose faith and trust in their government,” said the governor’s spokesman, Peter E. Kauffmann. Mr. Paterson, in his State of the State address last week, proposed a far more sweeping plan that would centralize ethics enforcement in Albany with a single independent commission responsible for enforcing the state’s campaign finance and ethics laws. Legislators acknowledged that their plan could have gone further, but insisted that the agreement represented the best hope for near-term progress, especially when it came to the difficult task of convincing rank-and-file lawmakers to vote for broader scrutiny of themselves. “This is what we know the members will vote for,” said Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker. Senator Daniel L. Squadron, a Democrat who represents Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, said, “It is better to have a good bill than a perfect press release.”
Legislative oversight would be handled by two bodies. One would resemble the current Legislative Ethics Commission, which is made up of legislators and nonlegislators. The commission would be responsible for issuing advisory opinions on matters involving possible misconduct and imposing penalties. Its work would be supplemented by a new entity called the Legislative Office of Ethics Investigation, an investigative body composed of eight members appointed by the legislative leaders. Each of the four leaders would appoint two members, making the breakdown even between Republicans and Democrats. It would conduct investigations and forward its findings to the primary legislative commission. If its investigation determined there was wrongdoing, its findings would be made public even if the primary commission reached a different conclusion. The proposal would also make changes to other areas of state ethics law.
The current oversight arm responsible for investigating campaign finance irregularities, the Board of Elections, would be freed from restrictions that make it difficult to begin an investigation. Currently the law requires the approval of three of four board members to begin an investigation. The new regulations would instead require three votes to stop an investigation started by the board’s chief investigator. Those votes would then have to be made public. The plan would also require all lawmakers to publicly disclose their outside income by categories, the lowest being $1,000 to $5,000 and the highest more than $1 million.
But in what critics consider to be a major loophole, legislators who are lawyers — a significant portion of senators and Assembly members, including Mr. Silver and the Senate Democratic leader, John L. Sampson — would not have to disclose who their clients are and how much they are being paid. Instead, businesses and other entities that lobby state government would be required to disclose any significant payment made to a lawmaker for any purpose, including legal advice. The bill’s supporters said that such a provision would allow the public a more revealing view of lawmakers’ outside business dealings, including legal work that is otherwise exempt from scrutiny. While the disclosure requirements, like most elements of the plan announced on Wednesday, may not be as far-reaching as government watchdog groups had hoped for, some considered it an improvement on the status quo. “This bill allows us to put more dots on the page and connect some of those dots,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union. “It may not connect all the dots, but it shows us the relationships that have been previously hidden.”