So-Called ‘Landmark’ Ethics Reforms Continue to Fall Short

A legislative Column by Assemblyman Will Barclay
One of the claims that Governor Cuomo has made about this year’s state budget is that it includes ethics reform that will “create the strongest and most comprehensive ethics laws for public officials of any state in the nation.”

Because I am not an expert on the ethics laws of other states and because neither the governor nor the legislature has held public hearings regarding what needs to be done to strengthen the state’s ethics laws, it is hard to opine as to the veracity of the Governor’s statement.  I am skeptical of the claim however in light of the fact that we have passed “landmark” ethics reform in the recent past and yet ethical lapses by elected officials continue to occur.

The Governor claims that the ethical issues that have engulfed Albany over the last several years center on the perceived conflict between legislators and their outside employment.

However, an analysis of the corruption cases that have occurred involving state legislators since 2002 do not support the Governor’s claims.

Indeed, few of the 26 legislators who have been involved in public corruption over the last decade held outside employment.

I mention this not because I am opposed to the ethics reforms contained in this year’s budget (which I describe below) but as a warning to the public to be skeptical of elected officials claiming that they are pushing for certain policies in the name of ethics reform.

Very often, these policies (e.g., public financing of campaigns and a full-time legislature) have more to do with a political agenda than they have to do with cleaning up Albany.

There are three major provisions of the ethics reforms contained in this year’s budget.

The first provision, for the most part, is directed at legislators who are also attorneys.

Under the new rules, subject to exceptions, legislators who also practice law must disclose any client who paid that legislator in excess of $5,000 for any services that that legislator personally performed for the client.

Presumably, this is an attempt to prevent sham payments being made to a legislator disguised as legal fees.

Generally, I think few object to this provision provided client confidentiality is protected where necessary.

The second provision attempts to curb abuse of the legislative per diem system.

Currently, legislators are paid a per diem for days they are in Albany performing legislative activities.

Per diems, at least theoretically, are meant to reimburse legislators for the cost of their food and lodging while they are in Albany.

For the most part, payment is based on an honor system with legislators simply certifying that they were in Albany on the days for which they seek a per diem reimbursement.

Unfortunately, a number of legislators have abused this system by seeking per diem reimbursement for days they weren’t even in Albany.

The new law will establish an “enhanced electronic attendance verification system.”

While yet to be clarified, it is likely that this system will require legislators to “card in” so that there will be an electronic verification that they were actually in Albany when they seek per diem reimbursement.

It is hard to be against this reform.

pparently, it is too much expect everyone to act in an honest way and therefore a verification system has to be put into place.

Finally, the third major provision attempts to further define what qualifies as personal use of campaign contributions.

Using campaign contributions for personal use has for a long time been prohibited.

However, what constitutes personal use and what is a legitimate campaign expense can be a gray area.

This reform specifically sets forth various circumstances that will be considered personal use of campaign contributions.

Most of these circumstances would seem to any outsider as obvious personal use (e.g., using campaign funds to pay country club dues), but apparently further clarification is needed.

Again, I think few are opposed to these new rules.

If anything, many would argue they do not go far enough and I agree.

Unfortunately, neither the Governor nor legislative leaders have focused on the one area where the majority of abuse has occurred.

The majority of the corruption cases that have taken place over the last decade have involved legislators directing state money to entities that either directly benefit that legislator, that legislator’s family, or that legislator’s friends.

In addition to legislators, and to a much greater extent, the Governor also has the ability to direct how State money is spent.

In order to prevent corruption, we need to provide further transparency to the legislative grant process and ensure rules are in place as to exactly how this money is directed.

Similar rules also need to be put in place for the Governor.  Seeing to these changes will do more than any of the ethics rules passed in this year’s budget to help clean up Albany.

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 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling (315) 598-5185.