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State Legislature Passes Ethics Overhaul, Gov. Says Not Good Enough
By Karen DeWitt
Albany, NY –
The bill, approved in the Assembly and Senate, strengthens the legislative ethics commission, criticized as notoriously weak. It establishes an executive director with a fixed term as protection against political whims, and imbues the commission with new powers to go after ethics violators. The measure also requires greater disclosure of lawmakers' outside income, and makes it easier for the moribund State Board of Elections to actually enforce the state's campaign finance laws.
Sponsor Senator Eric Schneiderman says the new law will lift the shroud of secrecy that he says hangs over the Capitol.
"This bill, I hope, is the death knell for the pay to play culture," Schneiderman said.
Objections from Republicans in both houses in part focused on concerns about possible misuse of the new ethics laws. Senator John DeFrancisco, of Syracuse, says the new law gives greater powers to the Board of Elections chief enforcement officer, who is a Democrat. Assemblyman Joel Miller, a Republican from the Hudson Valley, feared political witch hunts from "rogue" prosecutors.
Under the new terms of financial disclosure, lawyers will still be able to protect their clients from public scrutiny. That provision has irked some non-lawyers in the legislature, who will be required to more fully disclose their outside business associations. Senator Frank Padavan, who is a full time legislator with no outside employment, nevertheless worried about creating different standards for different lawmakers.
"We shouldn't have two classes of citizens," said Padavan.
Both Majority Party Democratic Legislative Leaders, Senator John Sampson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, are lawyers connected to prominent private law firms.
Senator Ruben Diaz, a Democrat, and the only Senator to vote against the bill, is a preacher, and would be protected under the measure. But he says it's not right.
"I am voting no," said Diaz. "To protect lawyers is wrong."
The bill also scraps the controversial state Public Integrity Commission, and replaces it with a new entity that oversees ethics in the governor's office. For the first time, the governor would not be able to appoint the majority of ethics board members.
Governor Paterson has proposed his own set of ethics reforms. Some of them go farther than the legislature's package. Paterson would like to take ethics oversight away from the legislature and create one ethics board for everyone. The governor is also calling for public financing of campaigns. Paterson says the legislature's plan does not go far enough. Senators, including Senator Schneiderman, agree, and say the reforms should be viewed as a good first step.
"In every area of the law that is addressed by this legislation, it moves us forward," Schneiderman said. "It moves us toward transparency, it moves us toward disclosure."
In a statement, Governor Paterson said he'll veto the bills, because they don't go far enough. A spokesman for the Senate says they plan to override that veto.