New State Ethics Law Tougher, but Doubts on Enforcement Persist

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Under New York State’s new ethics law, state legislators will have to disclose their clients in outside businesses, or those whose interests they represent on legislation. The law also demands they name clients that receive grants or contracts from the state, or which are parties in proceedings before state agencies. Legislators who are attorneys have to disclose more about the clients their firms represent.

“[M]uch of their business in these law firms,” said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the New York State League of Women Voters, “is driven by people who want to get influence in Albany.”

The statements of legislators and other elected officials will be presented online. The financial figures will no longer be redacted.

The new Joint Commission on Public Ethics, whose members will be appointed by both the governor and lawmakers, will randomly audit the 30,000 financial disclosure documents to be filed by all candidates and elected officials, policy-makers and state employees who earn more than $88,000. Audits that result in findings of potential ethics violations be made public. Citizens Union Executive Director Dick Dadey predicted that “the joint oversight and the requirement that random audits be conducted will change the dynamic.”

There remain some problems:  Earmarks still exist, though they haven’t been funded for several years due to budget constraints. There are no legal restrictions on legislators setting up non-profit organizations that can be used to reward political supporters and/or evade campaign finance rules.

Finally, JCOPE must refer its findings to the Legislative Ethics Commission–a body that has proven reluctant to censure errant lawmakers in the past–to decide on penalties. Dadey called that “an area that needs improvement.”

In any event, the Ethics Commission has 90 days to determine a sanction for those civil violations. The JCOPE findings and the Ethics Commission determinations will be made public. And JCOPE will refer breaches of criminal law to law enforcement agencies.

David Grandeau, the former State Lobbying Commission executive director, is concerned that “the 14 members on the board are political appointees who know which way the wind is blowing.” Grandeau knows the dangers of political control of ethics agencies. In order to remove him, Bruno and former Governor Eliot Spitzer abolished his effective commission and folded it into the toothless ethics agency they controlled. Grandeau said, “I thought legislative leaders and the governor should have made an effort to appoint more common citizens.”

That leaves it up to citizen groups viewing the online disclosure reports to provide oversight.

 

This story is part of a joint project on state integrity with the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. For more stories in the series, visit www.stateintegrity.org

Lucy Komisar

Lucy Komisar

Lucy Komisar, a member of 100 Reporters, is an investigative journalist focusing on corporate corruption. She won a 2010 Gerald Loeb award for exposing how the Florida Banking Dept. allowed Ponzi schemer Allen Stanford to move money offshore with no regulation. Her email is lucykomisar (at) thekomisarscoop.com.

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