Ethics Reform Bill Would Establish More Guidelines for Public Officials

By Assemblyman Will Barclay (R-Pulaski)

This spring the Assembly passed stronger ethics legislation that would improve oversight for public officials and create a more open government. As the ranking member of the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Guidance as well as a member of the Legislative Ethics Committee, I strongly support this legislation and sponsor the bill. Though the Assembly passed this bill, it has since stalled in the Senate. Former Senate leader Joe Bruno’s conviction should provide the Senate with the catalyst to pass this bill.

The ethics legislation (A9032) lays the framework for a more independent, transparent and accountable ethics system for the public. Following Troopergate, there was public outcry for more accountability. Since Bruno’s trial and subsequent conviction, several concerned citizens and news outlets have again called for improved ethics in Albany. Improvements to the laws need to be made. This bill makes provisions for better ethics supervision that would lead to more bipartisan oversight and create a more open government.

Currently, the governor alone is able to appoint seven members to serve on the existing Commission on Public Integrity. This creates an imbalance of power for the executive. The bill establishes three new bipartisan commissions and offices. Within each of these bodies, legislative leaders from both houses would be able to appoint members to serve. The new commission would have six members; the Governor, the Comptroller and Attorney General would be allowed to appoint two each, giving less power to one official.

Specifically, the bill establishes a New York State Commission on Lobbying Ethics and Compliance; establishes a Legislative Office of Ethics Investigations; and establishes a joint legislative commission on Ethics Standards. It also directs the committee on Open Government to make annual reports that summarize these committees.

The bill also expands financial disclosures to make “categories of value” public and increases disclosure regarding business and appearances before state agencies and consulting services. Financial interests were of major concerns in Bruno’s trial and I believe the clause pertaining to financial interests addresses these circumstances. In addition, the bill increases lobbying disclosure regarding business relationships with state public officials.

By passing this bill, we’re one step closer to a more open government. Enabling more government leaders to appoint members to the three bodies makes the commissions and offices more autonomous. Therefore, when there is an unethical act that needs to be reviewed, the chance of an honest review increases. It also empowers a larger variety of people with a vested interest in seeing that elected officials are kept on the up and up, creates more watchdogs and turns some gray areas in the law into black and white.

According to the bill, “the legislation seeks to create multiple bodies that will function independently from the branches of government and lobbying industry that they seek to regulate. These bodies would be charged with different responsibilities, including compliance and oversight of the public officers law, issuing advisory opinions to prevent ethical lapses before the occur, investigatory powers for alleged violations of the public officers law, enforcement of the public officer’s law and compliance and enforcement of the lobbying law.”

Though tougher ethics laws do not take the place of a good moral compass, they do provide more serious consequences to offenders and provide the state with more watchdogs with a variety of interests. I encourage the Senate to take up this bill to better protect the public

If you have any questions or comments on this or any other state issue, or if you would like to be added to my mailing list or receive my newsletter, please contact my office. My office can be reached by mail at 200 North Second Street, Fulton, New York 13069, by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling (315) 598-5185.