Future of Ethics Reform in New York

Albany, NY – Paterson proposed term limits, public financing of campaigns and
other measures to end what he calls the pay to play atmosphere that
has infected state government.


"We must address the chronic abuse of power," Paterson said.


The governor is proposing one super commission to oversee all
branches of government, and all possible transgressions. The reaction
from legislative leaders form the governor's own party was cool, and
non committal. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, says he'll respond
when he actually sees the details.


"We've gotten a lot of press releases from the governor that we've
never seen bills that accommodate," said Silver.


The legislature is currently working on their own ethics reform
package, and Silver says they are
unlikely to support an overall commission to enforce all ethics
violations.


"There is a constitutional provision of separation of powers," said
Silver.


The Speaker says the legislature wants to instead overhaul the
existing legislative ethics commission, which is viewed as
notoriously weak, to make it more transparent, and independent. It
would be modeled after one in Congress, and they would appoint an
executive director with a set term, who is not vulnerable to the
whims of lawmakers.


The Senate and Assembly's attempt to craft their own ethics reform
proposal has angered the governor and his aides. Paterson's Chief of
Staff, Larry Schwartz, earlier in the week accused top legislators of
negotiating in secret, and trying to keep Paterson out of the picture.


"The governor is concerned that they're going to put out a watered
down or sugar coated ethics reform bill," said Schwartz.


Lawmakers claim the governor did not want to participate in the
talks.


One of the provisions that Paterson is proposing could be dubbed
Joe's Law', because it addresses some of the problems brought up in
former State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno's federal corruption
trial late last year. Bruno was convicted on two felony counts for
pursuing business interests that conflicted with his state duties.
The governor's proposal would require legislators to disclose more
fully to the public the outside income they receive, even attorneys
with clients seeking legal advice. The measure strikes at the heart
of jobs held by Speaker Silver and Senate Leader John Sampson. Both
are employed by large and prominent trial law firms. Silver is a
partner in Weitz and Luxenberg, Senator Sampson, a defense attorney,
recently signed on with one of the state's largest personal injury
law firms, Belluck and Fox.

Speaker Silver says the disclosure proposal could violate attorney
client privilege. He says it would be "unethical" to routinely make
public the names of clients and the matters on which they are seeking
counsel.


"Someone might not like to find out that their spouse consulted a
matrimonial lawyer by reading it in some newspaper," Silver said.


Even the state's top lawyer, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, points
out that there might be some conflict between the governor's proposed
financial disclosure requirements and the lawyers' code of ethics.


"You can't run afoul of the ethics law for lawyers, either," Cuomo
said.


Cuomo says there could be ways devised to disclose outside business
interests and still protect the privacy of clients.


Senate Leader John Sampson refused to comment on any of the
governor's proposals, saying he had not seen them. But he indicated
he was less than supportive of Paterson's call for term limits for
all elected officials.


"Interesting," Sampson said.


Government reform groups praised the proposals, even though the
governor attempted to discredit them in his scathing State of the
State address, accusing them of hiding the names of their donors from
the public. Sue Lerner, with Common Cause, says the key test will
be, can the governor get any of the proposals made into law?


"That's what we're concerned about," said Lerner. "That this is more
a political setting up of a controversy and less of a follow through."


But Lerner says the proposal is "strong" and she's willing to give
Paterson the "the benefit of the doubt".


Common Cause also released its annual tax forms, which spell out
donors and funding sources, and the group said it welcomed the
governor's call for disclosure.