Ethics

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

Schumer Avoids Talking About Bharara

From the Morning Memo:

As some state lawmakers begin to question corruption-busting U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s tactics, his former boss is continuing to not weigh in.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer on Monday declined to offer his assessment of Bharara or respond to the criticism from some lawmakers, who complained to The Daily News that the prosecutor has a tendency to grandstand and humiliate the Legislature by painting the whole body as rife with corruption.

At the same time, legislators have questioned whether it’s appropriate for Bharara to criticize how Albany does business through the three-men-in-a-room budget negotiations.

But Schumer, a former state assemblyman before being elected to the House, isn’t among those clamoring to criticize the federal prosecutor.

“He worked for me for five years,” Schumer said during a stop in Batavia, noting that he recommended Bharara for the job initially.

“The day he got into office we made a policy that I would not comment on him or his cases. I’ve kept it and I’m going to keep with it,” Schumer added.

Bharara in January made his most high-profile arrest, charging now former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver with accepting bribes and kickbacks.

Flanagan: Don’t Let Ethics Eclipse Education

From the Morning Memo:

Before the latest ethics reform craze swept the state Capitol in reaction to the Sheldon Silver corruption scandal, education was the top topic of debate among lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo made it clear long before he unveiled his 2015-16 budget – and even before the November 2014 elections – that he had the teachers unions in his crosshairs, and intended to break the so-called “monopoly” he believed is to blame for most of the public education system’s woes.

As promised, Cuomo included a host of aggressive education reform proposals in his budget. And he told lawmakers that if they accepted his overhaul plan in total, districts would receive $1.1 billion in aid instead of just $377 million.

This set the stage for an epic education budget battle – perhaps the biggest Albany has seen for some time.

But it’s taking place alongside the ethics reform fight. Cuomo has said this is now his top priority – something for which he might even be willing to shut down the government if lawmakers don’t accept his five-point plan to clean up Albany.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Flanagan said during a CapTon interview last night that while ethics reform is important, it shouldn’t distract lawmakers from the rest of the budget – and education in particular.

“I want to stay focused on what are our primary responsibilities,” Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, told me.

“Education is New York State’s number one obligation and responsibility, and I believe that’s dictated by virtue of our Constitution and a long historical perspective.”

“So, what we do on education – whether it’s funding or reform – has to be the focal point of the budget, and it has been for a long time.”

“Of course, there are great parallels to the health budget in large part because of federal funding. But New York State’s primary focus and obligation has to be on the proper and appropriate funding of education. The other issues…are real and they’re legitimate, and there’s going to be discussion on that.”

Flanagan is one of 16 state lawmakers who reported earning at least $100,000 from outside work in 2013. (Like a number of his Senate and Assembly colleagues, he’s an attorney).

The senator said yesterday that he does not support a full ban on outside income, which has been floated – though not formally proposed – by the governor, and endorsed by the IDC as part of a larger legislative reform package.

Flanagan said he believes Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, (also an attorney, whose outside income is reportedly the subject of a federal investigation), and the rest of the GOP conference will “support transparency and disclosure.”

But, Flanagan argued, a full ban on outside income would dramatically limit the Legislature’s talent pool, preventing anyone but career politicians and the very rich from entering public service.

“I believe there’s nothing wrong with people making money,” the senator said. “That’s one of the fundamental components of our democracy…I believe in government service…But I don’t think that should preclude me or anyone else from being able to earn money for our family.”

At the end of the day, Flanagan predicted that the Legislature and the governor will be able to come to a deal on an on-time budget that is “a good, solid product everyone can be proud of.”

But he allowed the process of getting there will likely be messy – to say the least.

Flanagan Questions Outside Income Ban

Republican Sen. John Flanagan questioned the push to ban outside income in the state Legislature, saying New York would be the only state government to have such a measure in place.

“I don’t think there’s any other state in the country that has a ban on outside income,” Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, said at a news conference. “Personally, no, I don’t believe in a ban on outside income.”

Flanagan instead said that new transparency measures should be put in place. Lawmakers are already required to release ranges on their outside income, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing them to detail the dollar amounts, plus reveal their legal clilents.

Flanagan, a lawyer who earns between $100,000 and $150,000 at a law firm, said the GOP conference would back “reasonable” disclosure.

“I think at the end of the day our conference will support transparency, disclosure that is reasonable that is in the best interest of the public,” he said.

The debate over legislative moonlighting is being reignited after the arrest of Manhattan Democrat Sheldon Silver on charges he used legal referrals to mask bribes and kickbacks. Silver was forced to resign from the Assembly speakership, a post he’s held since 1994.

Senate Democrats are backing legislation that would put a cap on outside income. The conference was quick to pounce today on Flanagan’s comments.

“How many times do we have hear the same old broken record when we know the Senate Republicans always water down the ethics reforms that are desperately needed right now,” said Deputy Minority Leader Mike Gianaris.

Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein, meanwhile, is stepping away from his law firm and forgoing outside income from now on.

In the Democratic-led Assembly, newly inducted Speaker Carl Heastie has raised the possibility of capping outside income in its rules.

As for outside income limitations or transparency measures, Heastie said the conference will decide how to move forward.

“That’s a decision we’ll make as a conference,” he said. “We’re starting to begin those discussions. I know the governor would like to see something done. We know as a conference that something has to be done.”

Valesky Says Ethics Reform Won’t Be a Problem for Budget

Senator Dave Valesky said, Friday, he doesn’t think ethics legislation will hold up an on-time, fiscally responsible state budget.

Governor Cuomo said during a talk at NYU Law School Monday that he wouldn’t approve a budget without significant ethics reform. That package of bills would focus on disclosure of outside income for lawmakers, client information, and campaign finance reforms.

The package would be a large hurdle for Albany, with remnants of the latest corruption scandal still circling the halls of the state capitol.

But Valesky says he doesn’t see any trouble.

“I firmly believe that it won’t come to that,” Valesky said in an interview. “We have had – between Governor Cuomo and the legislature – four years now of a cooperative governing structure that has led to on-time budgets, fiscally responsible budgets. I don’t see any reason why that’s going to change this year. So I’m confident that we’ll have a significant ethics package included in a final budget that gets done by March 31st.”

One way for lawmakers to avoid any troubles with outside income would be to eliminate it altogether by creating a full-time legislature. When asked if he would support such a move, Valesky did not give a clear answer.

“I think the time has long since come that we need have that disucssion on both points: Whether it be a full-time legislature with no outside income similar to what Congress did a number of years ago. My understanding is no other state has taken that step, but that’s not to indicate that we shouldn’t have that conversation here in New York State.”

The budget is due at the start of the state’s next fiscal year: April 1st. But even if ethics reform slides the spending plan past its due date, Cuomo says it would be worth it.

“It is more important to me to prove we have corrected the problem and restored the trust, than just check another box,” Cuomo said earlier this week.

Langworthy Says Kearns Should Replace Silver As Speaker

When Assemblyman Mickey Kearns announced he would not caucus with his party until Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver stepped down, few people outside Western New York even noticed.  Thursday following Silver’s arrest on fraud and corruption charges, the South Buffalo Democrat seemed to offer a bit of an ‘I told you so’ to the Assembly Democratic Conference.

“What I’m surprised about is how long he’s lasted. We had proof that there were young girls that were under oppression that were being abused by some of my colleagues and that wasn’t good enough to remove him from office,” Kearns said.

Kearns has been a vocal critic of Silver since the Vito Lopez scandal but only Charles Barron, a freshman Democrat from Brooklyn, joined him in not supporting Silver as Speaker earlier this month.  That’s something a well known WNY Republican leader was quick to point out Thursday night.

“I want to know where our local delegation, you know, Sean Ryan and Robin Schimminger and Crystal Peoples (-Stokes), where they stand on Shelly Silver’s leadership,” said Erie County GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy.

Ryan did release a statement saying he was “disturbed” by the allegations but few Western New York Democrats outside of the Assembly Majority Leader had anything to say.

“Perhaps they should look to Mickey Kearns as the new Speaker of the Assembly. He’s a Democrat. He’s a reformer. He’s somebody that really brings a bipartisan approach to government and he could get things done,” said Langworthy.

This isn’t the first time Langworthy has been supportive of Kearns.  He allowed Kearns to run on the Republican line during his first run for the Assembly in a 2012 special election.

Kearns himself knows it’s unlikely the Democratic Caucus would welcome him back with open arms let alone vote for him as Speaker.  When asked who he’d like to see replace Silver, Kearns was intentionally vague.

“Anyone who’s not under indictment or investigation would be better than Speaker Silver right now,” Kearns added.

Buffalo Democrat Renews Call To Replace Silver

When Democrats in the state Assembly return to Albany to decide whether or not Sheldon Silver will continue on as speaker, a Buffalo Democrat will not be among them.  Mickey Kearns no longer caucuses with his party after his repeated calls for new leadership went unanswered.

“Enough is enough and we’ve got to do things differently in New York and I think it starts with a change at the top,” Kearns said

Kearns left the Democratic conference in May of 2013 to protest Silver’s handling of the Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal.  Only one other Democrat joined him at the time.

He hopes a report in the New York Times, which includes new accusations of ethics violations against Silver regarding the speaker’s failure to disclose substantial payments from a law firm, will convince his colleagues to see things differently.

“I think as things progress and we get some more information that people may begin to reassess how they see things.  We have a lot of new legislators coming in,” said Kearns.

For Kearns, replacing Silver is the first step in changing the way the Assembly does business.

“Even if Speaker Silver were to leave tomorrow and you bring a new person, he or she would still follow the same archaic rules that are in place where we can’t get bills to the floor, where the Speaker assigns chairmanships, where we don’t have independent committees. Things aren’t going to change.”

Kearns is pushing term limits for legislative leadership.  He’s also calling for a rule change that would allow any member to bring legislation to the floor for a vote.

He acknowledged the report in the New York Times is “preliminary”, but said he is anxious for “more information.”

“I’m hopeful that this once again brings the issue of ethics to the forefront in Albany,” Kearns said.

It’s an issue Kearns isn’t planning to let go – regardless of whether or not his efforts are successful this time around.

“I’ve been consistent,” Kearns added. “So consistent that I left the Democratic conference to make a statement,” Kearns added.