Ethics

Survey: New York Most Corrupt State

When it comes to the perception of political corruption, New York is number one, according to a poll conducted by Monmouth University.

The poll found 12 percent of Americans surveyed believe New York to be the most corruption state, followed by California at 11 percent and 9 percent for Illinois. Neighboring New Jersey tied with Texas for five percent.

New York ranking first on the list — which isn’t meant to be a scientific distillation of which state is actually the most corrupt, but a measure of perception — comes after the arrest and indictment of now former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is also under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office, the Long Island Republican confirmed earlier today.

A parade of state lawmakers and politicians have been arrested in recent years, ranging from Sen. Malcolm Smith for seeking to bribe his way onto the New York City mayoral ballot, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson for accepting bribes in exchange for writing favorable legislation, Sen. Shirley Huntley for steering member items to a non-profit she controlled, Sen. Pedro Espada for embezzling funds from a health-care network he controlled, Sen. Vinnie Leibell for kickbacks and Sen. Nick Spano for tax evasion.

In addition to Silver, three other rank-and-file members of the Legislature — Sens. Tom Libous, John Sampson and Assemblyman Bill Scarborough — are under indictment for unrelated corruption charges.

At the same time, there is the ongoing probe in the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption’s closing down following an agreement on ethics reform.

Just to a name a few examples.

“When it comes to political corruption, it seems the entire country is in a New York state of mind,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch. “Monmouth makes no claims as to the accuracy of these perceptions, but this is how the American public sees it.”

What Was Proposed, What Changed, In Ethics Deal

Citizens Union has released a “scorecard” of the latest ethics package to pass at the state Capitol, breaking down what was initially proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and what ultimately became the final product.

In short, a number of changes and alterations were made to Cuomo’s initial five-point plan that called for new outside income disclosure requirements, an overhaul of per diem disbursement and campaign finance measures.

Senate Republicans, in particular, had raised concerns with the effort to have lawyers who are also elected state lawmakers disclose their clients.

That disclosure was ultimately approved, albeit on a prospective basis and lawmakers can apply for exemptions.

Here’s the full analysis:

CU Scorecard Comparison of Ethics Reform 2015 by Nick Reisman

Johns Calls Pay Commission ‘Backdoor’ Way Of Getting A Raise

A Rochester-area State Assemblyman says if his colleagues want a pay raise they should draft legislation and vote on it.  Webster Republican Mark Johns not only criticized the way the pay raise commission was approved he called the bill flawed.

“We passed the bill at 2:30-3:00 in the morning and there’s not a lot of daylight then and people aren’t necessarily paying attention.  The problem I have with a pay commission is the people on the commission will be appointed by politicians to decide how big of a raise the politicians should get,” said Johns.

About a week ago the idea of a pay raise commission for state-elected officials looked like a dead issue.  The commission was included in a last minute budget bill approved by the Senate and the Assembly.

“I believe the constitution says that we have to vote ourselves a raise, which will not take effect until the next legislature is seated, and I believe that’s the correct way to do it.  I think if people want a raise they make their argument, like they would with any other bill, and then have an up or down vote on it so you can see how your legislators are going to vote on the increase,” Johns said.

As Nick previously detailed, the new panel is actually being rolled into the commission created in 2011 that determines whether state judges should receive a boost in pay.  As Johns noted, any pay raise for the Senate and Assembly would not take effect until the next Legislature is seated, or Jan 1, 2017.

“I got elected in 2010 and I took a pledge not to vote for a pay increase for the duration that I’ll be down there.  I think that people would like to see a lot of things voted on and a pay increase is not one of them.  We don’t vote on term limits which upwards of ninety percent of the people want.  We’re going to do a backdoor way of getting a pay increase and I don’t think that’s going to be real popular when it gets out,” said Johns.

Increasingly frustrated with the legislative process, Johns teamed up with Democratic Sen. Diane Savino last year to introduce the SOLE act.  The Sensible Opportunity for Legislative Equality bill would allow each member to bring a bill that’s been discharged from committee to the floor for a vote at least once during a two-year legislative session.

A version of the bill was included in an Assembly Minority ethics reform package and did not make it into the budget. Johns is hopeful the idea will still be considered before the end of the legislative session.

“I’ll be honest with you we talk about all kinds of equality: marriage equality, pat equality, gender equality, I think legislative equality would go a long way.  We vote on a lot of issues down there and the red button does work.  There’s no reason a minority member or a majority member shouldn’t be allowed to bring up a good idea for discussion and have an up or down vote and if you don’t like the bill or the contents vote it down,” Johns added.

 

Client Disclosure, But Only Moving Forward

The final ethics legislation to be voted on by state lawmakers includes disclosure requirements for those who work in the legal or consulting professions, but only for those with new business being taken on in 2016.

Client disclosure won’t be made public until June 2017, according to the law.

The bill language was released this afternoon and is expected to be voted on after lawmakers conference the massive education, labor and family assistance budget bill.

At the same time, there are allowances built into the legislation that would prevent client disclosure when it comes to the “invasion of privacy” for a client or “undue harm.”

Both the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Office of Court Administration will have the power to redact clients names based on that criteria and other exemptions, such as divorce proceedings, estate plannings and cases involving children.

When it comes to clients who are dealing with initial public offerings, where confidentiality is agreed to by federal law, names and other client information will be put into a “locked box” that is held by the Office of Court Administration to be opened at a later date.

JCOPE itself is due to receive a funding increase of $2.4 million, with half of that earmarked for the disclosure requirements being put into effect.

Moving forward, lawmakers with clients will need to detail what work they’ve done on their behalf and provide descriptions for a variety of sample services such as preparing “certified architectural or engineering renderings.”

Personal use of same campaign funds will be restricted, such as country club membership, rent and other dues.

But elected officials will still be allowed to use campaign money for attorney representation and other legal fees.

Under Budget, JCOPE To Receive $2.4M Boost

The ethics framework agreement is set to include a $2.4 million boost to the Joint Commission On Public Ethics, the lobbying and ethics regulator created in 2012.

The commission will receive $1.2 million in order to handle the new disclosure requirements for lawmakers with legal clients (Legislators who are lawyers with clients can also report to the Office of Court Administration and receive an exemption based on criteria such as the sensitivity of the case and whether the client has business before the state).

An additional $1.2 million will be earmarked JCOPE for information technology upgrades, according to an official briefed on the allocation.

Still, specific language on the ethics and disclosure package is yet to be formally released as lawmakers continue to discuss major budget bills such as the education, labor and family assistance package.

The ethics agreement, meanwhile, is being panned by a coalition of good government groups for not being released with hours to go before the deadline.

The groups — Common Cause of New York, Citizens Union, the Brennan Center, NYPIRG and Reinvent Albany — called on the bill to be released.

“It is unacceptable in a functioning democracy that an ethics bill about the disclosure of legislators’ outside income hasn’t even been disclosed to the public,” the groups said in a joint statement. “Yet it will be introduced in a moment’s notice, fast tracked with a message of necessity, and the legislature will vote on a major reform bill with no one having a chance to review it let alone read it.”

Good-Government Groups Huddle With Cuomo’s Office

As the negotiations over the state budget appear to be winding down, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s counsel’s office met privately on Friday afternoon with several good-government advocates to discuss new outside income disclosure requirements under consideration.

The meeting was not with Cuomo himself, though the governor did make a brief appearance, said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Details were scarce on what a possible agreement between Cuomo and state lawmakers might look like at this point, though advocates said they were under the impression no formal deal had been made.

“I think the issue is still open,” Horner said.

Common Cause New York’s Susan Lerner agreed.

“The ethics bill is still in progress,” Lerner said. “I don’t think we learned anything that is surprising.”

The meeting was meant more to “trade ideas back and forth,” she said.

Both Lerner and Horner declined to go into the specifics of what was discussed or what proposals the governor’s office sought to float with them.

“I don’t think we’re in a position to go into any specifics,” Lerner said.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos earlier in the day said he expected an ethics bill to be introduced as early as this evening.

Assembly Democrats last week announce they were in support of an ethics package agreed to by Cuomo that would create new disclosure requirements for lawmakers with legal clients and campaign finance while also change the travel reimbursement structure.

Senate Republicans have balked at the disclosure requirements and Cuomo has spent the last several days trying to reach an agreement that meets their concerns.

Lerner insisted no bill language was put before them in the meeting.

“We won’t possible know until we see bill language,” she said. “Things can be described and what it comes down to is drafting. Sometimes the drafting can be more expansive and helpful than the description.”

Bonacic: Cuomo Put Himself In A Box On Ethics

Senate Republicans are expected to discuss the two-ethics agreement forged by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Democrats this afternoon in closed-door conference.

Republican lawmakers have not been briefed yet on the details of the ethics bills backed Cuomo and Speaker Carl Heastie, but Sen. John Bonacic says the conference doesn’t want to “get jammed” on the issue.

Bonacic, an Orange County Republican, said he didn’t want to comment on Cuomo’s divide-and-conquer strategy with the two legislative houses on ethics.

But he added the governor painted himself into a corner on the issue by including ethics legislation in budget amendments that tied the policy to spending measures.

“I’m not going to talk about this game plan and his tactics,” Bonacic said. “He’s doing whatever he can to try to get the things he wants and get himself out of the box he put himself in by attaching a lot of what I thought were difficult public policy issues and attach it to the budget which I thought was a very bad strategy.”

Now, Cuomo is eager to get a deal, Bonacic said.

“He put himself in a small box and now he’s looking to get something done with the budget.”

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos is expected to discuss the issue in closed-door conference later today, Bonacic said.

Members were told to not be late for “an extremely important conference.”

Good Gov’t Groups to Legislature: Take After Congress

A coalition of good government groups are now out with their own proposed plan for ethics reform.

The group, which includes NYPIRG, Common Cause NY, and Reinvent Albany says the legislature should model their ethics package after what Congress currently has in place. Those reforms, which include outside income restrictions, were set in place following the Nixon adminstration’s Watergate scandal.

“We think New York is in its own Watergate moment right now,” said Blair Horner, Legislative Director of NYPIRG, “and this is the opportunity to actually seize that moment and enact meaningful, strict reforms on outside income and to make sure lawmakers represent only one master: The public they’re elected to serve.”

According to the report, about two-thirds of the Senate and three-fourths of the Assembly already have little to no outside income at all. With their proposal, outside income would be capped at 15 percent of the highest-paid legislator’s salary. Outside investments would be allowed, but would require disclosure.

This isn’t the first proposal that would limit or ban outside income. Senate Democrats and the Independent Democratic Conference have already put forth their own plans that would include heavy restrictions.

Those plans have been criticized as unconstitutional, illegal, or just unfair. But Horner says that critcism is unjustified.

“Most of the people that are here now live under a system that’s pretty much like what we’re describing and it’s not filled with millionaires now,” Horner said. “I think in fact the people who make the most money appear to be the people who don’t comply with this system.”

As far as the governor’s ethics plan, the coalition says it doesn’t go far enough.

“While [it] is certainly an improvement over what we have now, we’ve defined the problem differently,” Horner said. “What the governor’s proposing is you can serve two masters as long as you tell the public who they are, our argument is that you should only serve one master and that’s the public itself.”

Cuomo officially tied ethics reform to his spending plan in his 30-day budget amendments Friday. There’s been some concern that coming to an agreement on ethics reform could delay an on-time budget, but Horner says that shouldn’t be the case.

“They should get the budget done on time, they should do ethics reform. End of story. There’s no reason why one should have to hang up the other.”

The Disclosure Precedence

Amid the ongoing debate over whether disclosing private legal clients runs afoul of the law, it’s worth taking a look at a New York City Bar Association report that studied the issue.

In short, the study found that identifying clients does not constitute a breach of the attorney-client privilege.

It’s a key distinction as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made disclosure of outside income and lawmakers’ business partners a major component of his ethics push in the wake of Sheldon Silver’s arrest on corruption charges.

While “information” may include the identity of a client courts have found that revealing client identities does not breach ethical obligations because attorneys may be obligated or permitted by law to provide this information,” the report, issued in January 2010, found.

Indeed, public knowledge of which clients have retained who is already a matter of public record through court documents, hearings and real-estate transactions and even through promotions on law firms’ websites.

“This reality lowers the client’s expectations that identity will be kept private,” the bar found.

States like California and Washington, meanwhile, have long required financial disclosure information that includes divulging legal clients, who can be kept private under certain circumstances.

Senate Republicans have said they would support “reasonable disclosure” of outside income and private activities.

Cuomo, to be sure, is not pushing for a full-time Legislature that would bar lawmakers from receiving any outside income.

20071850-ReformingNYSFinancialDisclosureRequirements by Nick Reisman

Silver Threatened With $120K JCOPE Fine

Former Speaker Sheldon Silver faces a fine of up to $120,000 for failing to properly disclose his outside income, according to a notice quietly filed on the Joint Commission on Public Ethics’ website.

The delinquency notice comes after Silver’s arrest last month on charges that he received millions of dollars in bribes — which federal prosecutors allege were masked as legal referrals — from two law firms over the last 10 years.

The notice alleges that Silver faces the fines after not listing that income on his disclosure forms over a three-year period, or $40,000 a year.

Silver resigned the speakership, a post he’s held since 1994, but retained his seat in the Democratic-led Assembly.

The notice was included on JCOPE’s web page with little fanfare on Tuesday evening.

JCOPE’s board includes three Silver appointees.

NOD Silver by Nick Reisman