CORRUPTION WATCH: Cuomo’s Ethics Reforms Fall Short

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to New York Assembly leader Sheldon Silver before Cuomo delivered his fourth State of the State address from the New York State Capitol in Albany, New York


Window Dressing, Not Reform

by Russ Haven, Esq.


Albany has seen a parade of scandals over the past decade:  Two sitting governors; three of the past four Senate Majority Leaders; the Speaker of the Assembly; a state Comptroller; numerous Senators; and a host of Assemblymembers all have brought shame to New York by conduct that ranges from sketchy to criminal.


In January, after pulling the plug on the commission he set up to investigate state government ethical lapses—and soon after long serving Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s arrest rocked Albany—Governor Cuomo spoke about ethics at NYU Law School.


“The challenge is the inherent conflict of interest posed by outside employment. . . .  Are clients paying privately for the actions of a public official?”

The governor nailed it when he said:  “Congress, probably has the best compromise model.  A part time legislature that pays $174,000 and allows outside income of up to an additional 15%.”


Instead of calling for a limit on the total amount and sources of outside income—as Congress did post Watergate—the governor took a U-turn in his speech:


“We will propose what we call ‘total disclosure’—the most extensive disclosure of outside income in the United States of America.  You have heard the phrase ‘follow the money.’  We’re creating a new expression, ‘explain the money.’”


A version of the governor’s proposal passed both houses under literal and figurative cover of darkness this week.  More window dressing than reform, the package falls far short of even the inadequate “total disclosure” or “explain the money” standards set by the governor.


Here’s the key parts of the governor’s proposal that passed:


■ Legislators will provide a general description of the professional services they offer while moonlighting, for example as lawyers, insurance and commercial real estate brokers.

■ They’ll report more detail about clients who pay their firms $10,000 or more a year for services related to state government action, such as legislation, budget items and contracts.


Per diems, the monies lawmakers get for travel, food and lodging when they’re on state business, will be subject to new verification requirements and made public by legislator’s name on a website.

■ The rulings that limit using campaign donations for personal purposes, like buying cars, paying for home furnishings and country club memberships, are put into statute.


These changes would have been groundbreaking ten years and dozens of scandals ago.  From the perspective of 2015, it’s clear the loopholes are so plentiful and so large that government watchdogs are uniformly underwhelmed.  Here’s some of the problems with these so-called “historic” reforms:


■ Legislator-lawyers and other professionals who do not provide direct services, like those who are “of counsel” or managing partners, will continue to largely fly under the radar.

■ Those lawmakers who are attorneys will be able to seek an exemption from disclosing their clients in cases where they believe disclosure “may result in undue harm to the attorney-client relationship.”

■ Longstanding clients may be “grandfathered” in and exempt from disclosure.

■ The new disclosures won’t apply until 2016, with the information first made public May 2017.


The upshot is these new disclosures won’t eliminate the conflict of lawmakers indirectly paid by those who seek favors from state government.  And they won’t even shed much light on the problem of legislators serving two masters: the voters and the special interests that lobby the Legislature and hire the firms they work for.


Bet your last dollar we’ll soon be talking about ethics reforms again, more than likely when you see the photo of another public official being carted off in handcuffs to federal court.  As U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said, “stay tuned.”


Russ Haven, Esq., is legislative counsel at NYPIRG, a state and local government watchdog organization. 

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