The Ethics Bill: The Good and the Bad

A legislative column by Assemblyman Will Barclay (R,C,I–Pulaski)

An ethics bill was put before the Legislature last week and passed. It is a step in the right direction, aimed to help the state provide a more effective way to discipline those in State Government who violate ethics laws. It also strengthens some of those ethics laws and better delineates what is, in fact, unethical. It awaits the Governor’s signature. It was the Governor’s bill so, presumably, it will become law.

The bill creates an enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the executive and legislative branches. The bill also requires lawmakers to disclose more about their private business affairs. Pensions may also be forfeited if a public official is convicted of a felony that is in direct connection with public duties. These are all good things for New York State and the public at large.

The makeup of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, however, is worrisome. It’s a 14-member commission. Six members will be appointed by the Governor, three by the Senate leader and three by the Speaker of the Assembly. That is 12 appointees that could be viewed as already serving the majority. The other two appointments would be made by the minority leaders of the Senate and Assembly. Appointments are heavily weighted in the majority’s favor. Before the commission even meets, there is an inherent imbalance.

As the New York Times pointed out last week, the Governor’s appointments to the commission have the power to block an investigation. Theoretically, the commission could vote 12-2 in favor of an investigation and if those two “no” votes came from the Governor’s appointees, they could block the investigation from even starting. This also makes little sense.

The makeup of the commission presents a problem. Many of the ethics concerns that have arisen in the last two years revolve around the proper use of member items. I addressed the Assembly last week when this was on the floor for debate. I am concerned about the authenticity of what many are calling “true ethics reform.” Many of the ethical concerns in recent years center on the misuse or misappropriation of member items. If those who are coming into question are among the political party that serves in the majority, they could very well stand at an advantage in front of the new commission. Why not create a truly bipartisan commission?

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. You can also friend me, Assemblyman Barclay, on Facebook.