CORRUPTION WATCH: Gov. Cuomo Touts New Ethics Reforms Enacted in State Budget

Ethics Reform Includes Nation’s Strongest and Most Comprehensive Disclosure Laws for Public Officials with Outside Income

Ethics in government and conflicts of interest in the legislature have been among the most persistent issues facing New York State for generations. Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders have again attempted to address this longstanding problem. In the recently enacted state budget, they lay claim to implementing the strongest outside income disclosure laws in the nation, along with other measures to deter, detect and punish breaches of the public trust.

“But we knew we had to do more. This budget does that and includes five key proposals that I introduced during a speech in February. These measures will create the strongest and most comprehensive ethics laws for public officials of any state in the nation,” said Governor Cuomo.

Dick Dadey, executive director, Citizens Union, called the ethics bill an uninspiring answer to much larger corruption problems due to its “small solutions and bigger disclosure loopholes.”

New Disclosure Requirements
Public officials will be required to disclose all outside earned income they receive, from whom they receive it, the actual services performed to receive the income, and whether there is any connection to the state government or the office that they hold or their public duties. Specifically:

· All public officials must disclose the nature of each source of outside compensation in excess of $1,000.
· No legislator, legislative employee or state officer may receive any kind of compensation, directly or indirectly, in connection with a pending bill or resolution.
· All public officials who personally provide services whether they work individually or as a member or employee of a business or firm, such as lawyers and real estate brokers, and receives compensation from a client/customer in excess of $5,000 must disclose the name of the client/customer, the services rendered, the amount of compensation and whether the services were related to governmental action. Activities exempted from client disclosure include child custody cases, preparation of wills, matrimonial proceedings, cases involving minors, bankruptcies, criminal proceedings and residential home closings.

Pension Forfeiture

Public officials who are convicted of public corruption should not have taxpayers pay for their retirement. The budget applies New York’s pension forfeiture law to all public officials who are convicted of public corruption, including those who entered the retirement system before enactment of the pension forfeiture law in 2011. The law allows a judge to protect an innocent spouse and minor dependent children and goes into effect after a second passage of a constitutional amendment by the legislature and voter approval in 2017.

Per Diem Reform
The Budget reforms per diems by establishing a new set of verification requirements including:

· To ensure an official is where they claim to be, the legislature will install an electronic system that verifies personal attendance of legislators at an official event.
· The Speaker of the Assembly and the Temporary President of the Senate will develop and implement policies to verify attendance at official events and establish standards and limits for reimbursable events.
· Reimbursements will be governed by federal regulations.
· Legislature will create a publicly accessible website showing members’ reimbursement and travel.

Prohibition of Personal Use of Campaign Funds
The Budget bars using campaign contributions for personal use. Such personal use will be defined as expenditures that are exclusively for personal benefit of the candidate or any other individual, not in connection with a political campaign or holding of a public office or party position. The law will include an illustrative list of prohibited uses including using campaign contributions for expenses unrelated to a campaign or the holding of public office such as residential home purchases, mortgage payments, rent, clothing, tuition payments, salaries for individuals not performing campaign work, admissions to sporting events, fines and penalties and dues for country clubs and health clubs.

Campaign Finance Disclosure
The Budget further expands the requirement for disclosing independent expenditures to include independent expenditures on communications made within 60 days before a general or special election, and 30 days before a primary election that reference a clearly identified client.

Additional Funding for Enforcement; Review of JCOPE to Ensure Performance
The Budget also provides an additional $1.2 million for enforcement activities at the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, amounting to a 27 percent increase in the Commission’s operating budget. The budget also includes additional funding to support modernizing technology systems at the Commission.

To ensure that the Commission is operating effectively and efficiently to enforce the ethics rules, the Governor and the Legislature must appoint a commission of eight people within 30 days to review and evaluate the activities and performance of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Legislative Ethics Commission.

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