Governor’s Ethics Plan: Two Out of Three’s Not Enough

Governor’s Ethics Plan:
Two Out of Three’s Not Enough

Published: 
February 2016

In the last three years, federal prosecutors in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York (covering New York City, Long Island, and the lower Hudson valley) have indicted and convicted dozens of lawmakers on corruption charges. The recent convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos underscore the need for immediate action to address the crisis of corruption in Albany. 

On the first day of the state’s 2016 legislative session, Common Cause/NY, along with the New York Public Interest Research Group and Citizens Union, called on all 213 members of the Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign a “Clean Conscience Pledge” to address the political crime wave in Albany. The pledge includes three reforms:

1. Close the limited-liability company loophole, which lets LLCs escape the standard restrictions on campaign contributions form businesses

2. Ban or limit outside income received by elected officials

3. Transparency in discretionary funds, money individual legislators get appropriated for their districts

The pledge directly addresses the faults in the state’s current laws that were revealed by testimony and evidence introduced at the Silver and Skelos trials.

A week later, in his State of the State address Jan. 13, Gov. Cuomo proposed several reform measures. His proposed ethics legislation addresses the LLC loophole and outside-income planks of the Clean Conscience Pledge, but does not yet include increased transparency for discretionary funding by elected officials. 

The pledge is a complete package intended to address the matters at the heart of the Silver and Skelos trials, in which two juries rejected the Albany status quo as not only unethical, but criminal. Currently, it has support from 21 lawmakers, including Democrats, Republicans, and the Independent Democratic Conference in the Senate.  You can monitor signatories at ethicspledgeny.org. The governor has not as of yet endorsed the pledge.

We at Common Cause/NY believe that public demand for meaningful reform is at an all-time high and cannot be ignored by our elected leaders any longer.   

 

Ethics

The governor properly invoked the model used by Congress to propose limiting outside income to 15 percent of lawmakers’ $79,500 base pay. However, his proposed ban on “royalties from the sale of a book” and “advanced fees” would cover only the legislative branch. This should be amended to include all statewide elected officials. In contrast, the proposal for closing the LLC loophole fully addressed the way parties, candidates, and donors circumvent the corporate cap on campaign contributions.

Cuomo’s plan recommends allowing the public to “access more information about where and how money flows from the state to private citizens.” To do so, he proposes that the state attorney general’s and comptroller’s offices, as well as the Office of General Services, develop a plan to allow the public to track state contracts better. However, additional steps can and must be taken regarding the distribution of grants by elected officials through lump-sum appropriations and other discretionary funds.

Cuomo also proposed two other important reform measures: a voluntary system of publicly financed elections, and forfeiture of pensions by public officials convicted of corruption.

 

Oversight

The governor’s plan would extend the provisions of the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE); authorize the commission to seek documents in support of information on financial disclosure statements; increase enforcement authority against lawmakers who failed to comply with JCOPE audits; and give district attorneys oversight over those who submit deceptive information. The bill would also require lawmakers to put the exact amounts of their outside income (rather than a range) on disclosure forms, and impose financial penalties for all violations of the Public Officers Law regulating ethics.

While these are a good start, there should be structural reforms made to JCOPE as well. For example, the commission’s board should have a smaller number of appointees (and an odd number, to prevent tie votes); allow for appointments by the state Comptroller and Attorney General; eliminate the three-member minority legislative “veto” over investigations; and prohibit elected officials from sitting on JCOPE’s board, since it regulates the lobbying industry, a tremendous source of campaign contributions. In addition, the executive director and other staff should not be hired directly from the executive or legislative branches. The law should also require a “cooling off” period after employment in state government.

In a related area, the package includes a good measure that would require political consultants advising elected officials to register as lobbyists.

Although the governor has laid out some excellent proposals, two out of three is not enough. Albany cannot begin to live down the spate of scandals if it’s unwilling to live up to the public’s expectations. Talk is cheap, and it’s time to get to work. We hope you will join Common Cause/NY in helping to ensure that this is the year we get reform done in Albany.

 

Susan Lerner is executive director of Common Cause/NY.