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Senate Dems host ethics forum



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New York Public Interest Research Group Legislative Counsel Russ Haven, left, testifies with League of Women Voters of New York President Barbara Bartoletti, right, at last Wednesday’s forum on ethics reform.
May 09, 2011
In an attempt to change the public's poor view of the Legislature, Senate Democrats asked for New Yorkers' suggestions on how to clean up Albany.

"The worst thing we could possibly do is pass an ethics bill that's a fig leaf [or] promise reform without delivering it, and today is about making sure that we do get ethics reform done and we get it done in a way that makes a difference for the state," said Sen. Daniel Squadron, D-Carroll Gardens.

Squadron hosted a forum in Albany May 4 on government ethics reform legislation. Last week's forum, which was attended by Democratic senators and representatives of good government groups, was the first on the topic in almost two years. It was also the first interactive forum, as members of the public were allowed to participate online.

Those with questions or concerns about ethics reform sent e-mails or posted questions on Facebook and Twitter. According to Squadron, more than 200 people watched streaming video of the forum. Sixty-two tweets were made throughout the event, including three from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, whose NY Uprising group has been pushing for ethics and redistricting reform since the 2010 election cycle.

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"We have a new governor who has made it clear that ethics reform is an absolute top priority. That's great news. Hopefully, working together with the legislative houses, we're going to be able to get actual ethics not just passed but signed into law this year," said Squadron. In his State of the State address in January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for an ethics bill this session that isn't "watered down or half-baked."

The conversation at last week's event centered on pending bills — Squadron's S.31 and Sen. Gustavo Rivera's, D-Brooklyn, S.382 — that, respectively, would establish an independent commission to oversee government ethics and increase the requirements on financial and client disclosure for lawmakers and statewide elected officials, among others working in state government and for political parties.

"We strongly believe that major steps need to be taken to overhaul the ethics and campaign finance system in our state. This should not be piecemeal. It should not just be one bill here and there. These are Band-Aids on a broken system, and we need to throw it out and create a new system," said Jessica Wisneski, campaign director of Citizen Action of New York.

The Democrat-controlled Senate and Assembly passed an ethics bill (S.6457/A.9544) last session, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. David Paterson.

"We did pass … what was the strongest ethics bill that has ever passed the Legislature. It certainly wasn't strong enough. It didn't go far enough. Also, it was unfortunately vetoed by the governor. We tried, we did a lot in the majority, we didn't do everything we should have, and I think we would all agree on that," said Squadron.

According to League of Women Voters of New York President Barbara Bartoletti, the political climate in Albany has changed over the last few decades.

"There was a congeniality … that existed then, I think there was a real feeling of: This is a privilege to serve in public office and I must live up to that privilege all the time, and I think there just was a different … feeling in the Legislature," said Bartoletti.

According to the Senate Democrats, a majority of those who serve in the Legislature still feel that sense of privilege and don't have intentions to misuse their position of power.

"I believe, fundamentally, that the vast majority of us who choose to become elected officials, who ask our constituents to give us their votes, whether it's at the local level, the state level, school boards, federal level … do it for all the right reasons. We don't intend to violate ethics laws, we don't intend to violate our oath of office," said Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan.

"I was elected, like many of my colleagues, to change the way Albany does business. Certainly my predecessor kind of embodied what was wrong with Albany so we need to move in a different direction," said Rivera. The senator succeeded Pedro Espada after he was indicted on corruption charges, accused of stealing more than half a million dollars from a Bronx health clinic.

Some legislators said they are being punished for the actions of former legislators who were convicted for ethics violations.

"When we discuss these ethics issues, I feel like I'm being penalized for what the people who are serving, who are in prison already have done or who are on their way to prison. And I'm still being asked to answer for their mistakes on a daily basis. So it's difficult," said Sen. Velmanette Montgomery, D-Brooklyn.

Good government groups stressed the importance of making sure the ethics commission proposed in bill S.31 has independent oversight to prevent conflicts of interest.

"Board members should not be involved in lobbying at any level, should not be receiving profits as partners in firms that do lobbying or have state contracts, and should not be involved in partisan affairs," said New York Public Interest Research Group Legislative Counsel Russ Haven. "Moreover, members of the commission should have a fiduciary responsibility to the public, not their appointing authorities. The public should feel that the commission members are there, first and foremost, to protect the interests of the public."

The League of Women Voters of New York wants the nine members of the independent commission to be chosen by the governor, legislative leaders, the comptroller and the attorney general to prevent unequal influence. "Therefore no single elected official would control a majority of appointments, something that we have consistently supported as essential to true independence," said Bartoletti.

According to Bartoletti, passing a strong ethics bill could be the key to passing legislation on issues New Yorkers are concerned about this session, including a property tax cap, mandate relief and rent control. "Until you get good ethics, until you get good redistricting, until you get campaign finance reform, all those other issues that they really care about are not going to change, and you're not going to be able to get to them."

Those who testified said true ethics reform cannot be achieved without also changing the campaign financing system.

"As critical as the ethics reforms we are discussing today are, the Brennan Center believes, based on our study of ethical lapses in New York state government, as well as successful efforts to transform corrupt governing elsewhere in the nation, that a package with campaign finance reform is essential to restoring public integrity," said Kelly Williams, attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said changing how the state defines lobbying is a component in ethics reform.

"The definition of lobbying should be enhanced to include resolutions and advocacy done prior to a bill's introduction. One of, I think, the biggest loopholes right now is that lobbying under the state law is only defined on a bill that has been introduced formally into the Legislature. We all know that a lot of effort goes into lobbying to try and even get to that stage of introduction," said Dadey.

Senators were welcoming of the suggestions offered by those testifying at last week's forum and shared some of the same concerns.

"I do believe there is a direct connection between ethics reform and campaign finance reform. I truly believe that with public financing, it limits outside donor influence, it increases public input and it does allow campaigns to focus more so on the people, their needs their concerns and the issues," said Sen. Joseph Addabbo D-Queens.

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