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Deal Reached on Ethics Reform

By Sarah Laskow
Monday, June 6th, 2011
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver at press conference in March.

On Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and Speaker Sheldon Silver announced a deal on ethics reforms, yet another of Cuomo’s legislative priorities. The third stab at ethics reform during the tenure of as many governors, this one has more to like in it than its immediate predecessors.

The deal that Albany’s leaders outlined requires substantially more disclosure from both elected officials and the business interests that petition them. Although officials had to disclosure the level of income they receive from jobs outside their public office, that information was not made public. Now it will be, and the ranges that officials use to detail their income from each source will be smaller.

Officials will also disclose the names of their clients or customers. This type of disclosure  allows the public to hold officials accountable about decisions that affect the interests of the people who pay their bills. It’s an important, but less common disclosure requirement: The last time the Center for Public Integrity counted, 21 other states made similar provisions. (Nine go further, requiring the level of income garnered from each client be disclosed.)

The deal also extends lobbying disclosure to executive branch agencies and redefines lobbying to include work on the introduction of legislations, not just legislation already in play.

But on enforcement, the deal does less than it might. The new deal replaces with the existing Commission on Public Integrity with a Joint Commission on Public Ethics, but leaves in place the Legislative Ethics Commission, which means Albany will still have two ethics bodies that can find ways to quarrel with each other. Friday’s release said that the new commission will have “enforcement powers to investigate violations.” But investigation is not the same as enforcement. The new commission will hand over findings of investigations of legislators to the Legislative Ethics Commission, which has rarely inflicted even a hand-slap on the legislators it oversees. The deal does increase the penalties for misfiling financial disclosure forms and for violating conflict of interest provisions, but by how much is not yet clear.

But this deal does not guarantee that elected officials in Albany will change their behavior. No legislative agreement can accomplish that. If the goal, in the end, is to keep legislators and elected officials in line, it does help to insist on a stronger ethics infrastructure. If the new structure is to be effective, it will need to be well funded. Good investigations cost money. It also matters who’s chosen to head the commission — a watchdog who will resist political pressures or a go-along-get-along appointee? These are the sort of details that make less dramatic headlines. Cuomo will be able to say, when he needs to, that he brought ethics reform to Albany. But will that be enough for him? Or will he continue to work, when there’s less attention to be had, to shift the capital’s cultural away from scandal? If it’s the latter, Albany might have a chance to change.