Senate Passes Strongest Ethics Reform In A Generation

 

After years of corruption and dysfunction in Albany, the New York State Senate took a major step forward in passing ethics reform (S6457/Schneiderman-Squadron) that ends the era of secrecy and significantly raises the bar of disclosure and accountability for elected officials.

Championed by Senators Eric Schneiderman and Daniel Squadron, the legislation -- which is the first time both houses of the Legislature passed ethics reform of this scope -- requires greater disclosure of outside sources of income for legislators, and activity of lobbyists, restores an independent lobbying commission, and empowers a bipartisan enforcement unit within the New York State Board of Elections to impose strict adherence to campaign finance laws. It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, 59-1.

Another bill (S6439/Squadron-Schneiderman) in today’s ethics reform package, which passed 60-0, fills an existing gap in state ethics law by amending both civil and criminal law to:

  • Explicitly ban public officers from using government resources for outside, for-profit business, under the Code of Ethics;
  • Clearly define an "ongoing scheme" to use government resources for outside, for-profit business as defrauding the government, a felony.

 

Senator Eric Schneiderman (D-Manhattan/Bronx) said, “I am very proud of the fact that, in our first weeks back in session, we’ve passed the most sweeping ethics reform in a generation. This is monumental. For decades, the problem has not been what’s illegal in Albany, but what’s legal. That's all about to change. These reforms will restore public confidence in our government through stricter campaign finance rules, increased transparency and meaningful ethics oversight of lawmakers. The message to all the well-connected lobbyists and legislators who have benefited from Albany's pay-to-play culture is clear: the party is over.”

Senator Daniel Squadron (D-Brooklyn/Manhattan) said, "I have pushed for increased disclosure, enforcement, and independence in Albany since I took office, and by passing this ethics package today, the Senate has taken a significant step towards that goal. When this package becomes law, it will make our state government more open, accountable, and transparent, and it will finally close the Bruno Gap in state ethics law by making it illegal for a public officer to use government resources for outside, for-profit business. Those are real and meaningful changes that make this package a good one, and that I hope will begin to restore New Yorkers’ faith in state government, but they are only the beginning. I am committed to continuing the fight to increase disclosure, strengthen ethics enforcement, and overhaul our state’s campaign finance laws."

Senate Majority Conference Leader John L. Sampson said, “New Yorkers are tired of being let down and left out by those in government who have abused their power and forgotten they serve the people and not themselves. Today, we are transforming state government with effective and comprehensive ethics reform that puts the people first. Our reforms create greater disclosure requirements for public officials, strengthen enforcement capabilities to ensure the law is upheld, and increase transparency to give New York a government as good as its people. I want to thank Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senator Eric Schneiderman, Senator Daniel Squadron, my colleagues in the Senate, and good government advocates for their extraordinary efforts in making something that has been talked about for years a reality today."

Senate President Pro Tempore Malcolm A. Smith said, "It is a priveledge not a right to serve the people of New York and lawmakers must remember that and uphold the highest of ethical standards.  Today, we have taken the first step in restoring the peoples faith by ensuring that pay to play practices can longer drive policy and that lawmakers must be held accountable to the people of this state."

Senator Jeff Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester) said, "Our state needs a tough, new plan to make sure state leaders act responsibly and honestly. I am pleased we are taking critical steps in reaching this goal.”

Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) said, “I have been an advocate for ethics reform since the day I first campaigned for Senate.  I know our government can and should be held to a higher standard.  And today I voted for the ethics reform bill because I could not reject the clear incremental improvements over existing law contained in the legislation. The bill reflects a down payment on the ethics reform that New Yorker’s truly deserve. We must now continue our progress and pass legislation that will limit lobbyist contributions, reform campaign finance rules, revoke the pensions of elected officials convicted of a crime while in office, and restrict how campaign funds can be spent.”

Senator Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Mamaroneck) said, “The public deserves a more transparent, accountable and effective state government, and the reforms we’ve adopted today are important first steps in making that a reality.  Much more needs to be done and moving forward, I will continue to push for tougher campaign finance laws, the establishment of an independent redistricting commission and other needed reforms.”

Senator David J. Valesky (D-Oneida) said, “This legislation is a good first step toward putting an end to ineffective ethics rules and enforcement that have been pervasive in New York for decades. By increasing transparency regarding legislators’ incomes and outside business relationships, strengthening oversight over possible conflicts, and committing to enforce violations, this legislation builds a much better system.”

Senator Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Queens) said, "A long journey begins with a single step.  We have heard the message our constituents have sent, we are listening and we are responding."

Among the many provisions of the plan, the package finally fills an existing gap in state ethics law by explicitly outlawing the use of state resources for outside, for-profit business.

Additionally, the legislation revamps current ethics law by reinstating an independent state commission on lobbying and increasing disclosure requirements for lobbyists who have business relationships with public officials. Legislators would also be required to reveal in greater detail their sources of outside income. In addition, the Legislative Ethics Commission would be divided into both a compliance and investigative arm, and the Commission on Public Integrity would be replaced by a six-member board to oversee ethics compliance in the executive branch. Current law governing judiciary ethics would remain unchanged.

The new commissions overseeing the executive and legislative branches would both take effect on July 31, 2010. The enhanced disclosure requirements would take effect January 1, 2011.  The new commissions would sunset on July 31, 2014.

 

Commission on Lobbying Ethics and Compliance

This legislation would restore an independent state commission on lobbying that would consist of six commissioners:  two appointed by the governor and one by each of the legislative leaders. Each appointee would serve for a fixed four-year term.

The legislation would:

  • Require that the chair and vice-chair be elected by the majority of members of the commission;
  • Require that an executive director be appointed by a majority vote of the members for a three-year term; and
  • Further define a “widely attended event” as a gathering related to the attendee’s duties or responsibilities in which at least 25 people are invited or expected to attend, not including individuals from the government entity in which the public officer serves; and
  • Add new language to define “nominal food and beverages” as that valued under $10.

 

Executive Ethics and Compliance Commission

Currently, the Commission on Public Integrity oversees ethics compliance by the executive branch. The agreed-upon ethics reform legislation would replace this body and create a six-member Executive Ethics and Compliance Commission (EECC), made up of two appointees each by the governor, the comptroller and the attorney general. The members would appoint an executive director, who would serve a three-year term and could only be removed by a majority vote of the board.

Additionally, this legislation would:

  • Prevent individuals from serving as EECC appointees for five years after working as an executive officer, legislative officer, executive or legislative branch employee or lobbyist in either New York State or other jurisdictions; 
  • Require the EECC to review all financial disclosure statements to ensure that each is complete;
  • Mandate that financial disclosure statements of elected officials be posted on the EECC website; and,
  • Institute a review process whereby either random reviews would be conducted by the EECC, or all members of a class-- statewide elected officials, commissioners and deputy commissioners, and other state officers and employees, legislators and legislative staff-- would be subject to review.

 

Joint Legislative Commission on Ethics Standards and the Legislative Office of Ethics Investigation

The ethics reform legislation introduced today would separate the Legislative Ethics Commission into two bodies.

The first, the Joint Legislative Commission on Ethics Standards (JLCES), would be the ethics compliance arm. Legislative leaders would appoint two members each, including four legislators and four non-members. This body would be responsible for conducting ethics training and education for legislative staff, issuing advisory opinions and imposing penalties for violations of the public officers’ law.

The legislation would:

  • Prevent individuals from serving as JLCES appointees for five years after working as legislative officer, legislative employee or lobbyist in either New York State or other jurisdictions, excluding the four legislators serving on the board;
  • Require the JLCES to review all financial disclosure statements to ensure that each is complete;
  • Mandate that financial disclosure statements of elected officials be posted on the JLCES website; and,
  • Institute a review process whereby either random reviews would be conducted by the JLCES, or all members of a class-- statewide elected officials, commissioners and deputy commissioners, and other state officers and employees, legislators and legislative staff-- would be subject to review.

The second body, the Legislative Office of Ethics Investigation (LOEI) would also be governed by an eight-member board. Each legislative leader would have two appointees, and legislators and legislative staff would be prohibited from serving on the board.

This body would:

  • Receive complaints about ethics violations from the public and referrals of cases for investigation from the JLCES and the Senate and Assembly Standing Committees on Ethics, and complaints about ethics violations from the public;
  • Send final reports to the JLCES; and
  • Publicize reports in which cases are not dismissed or in dismissals when that decision is inconsistent with the decision of the JLCES.

 

The legislation would also require the appropriate legislative oversight body to conduct a hearing on the effectiveness of these provisions within six months of the sunset date of the legislation.

 

Financial Disclosure

This bill would increase financial disclosure requirements by splitting an existing category into two new categories on financial disclosure forms. The first would cover amounts between $250,000 and $1 million; the other would cover amounts of $1 million or more.

Additionally, the legislation would:

  • Remove the provisions of current law that make categories of value confidential;
  • Require additional disclosure with respect to consulting services, business before the state and licensed professions; and
  • Clarify language to indicate that deferred compensation plans must be disclosed.

 

Ethics Reports

Under this legislation, the Committee on Open Government would prepare an annual report summarizing the actions of the JLCES, LOEI, EECC, the State Commission on Lobbying and the Senate and Assembly Standing Committees on Ethics.

 

Campaign Finance

To promote increased enforcement of campaign finance reform laws, the legislation creates an enforcement unit within the New York State Board of Elections (BOE) and mandates that at least 35 percent of the board’s annual budget be dedicated to the unit.  Additionally, it expands the jurisdiction of the enforcement unit and promotes the independence of the enforcement counsel by making the office a four-year term.  The legislation also promotes compliance with campaign finance laws by increasing current penalties and creating new penalties for violations, and requires greater disclosure and transparency of campaign finance information.  

The legislation would:

  • Require three of the four BOE commissioners to vote to stop an investigation by the enforcement counsel, rather than requiring, as current law does, three votes to begin an investigation;  
  • Mandate that all votes to stop an investigation or to act on the recommendation of the enforcement counsel after an investigation occur in public;
  • Add an additional campaign finance filing for candidates and political committees during the legislative session and increase the penalty for failure to file from $500 to $1,000;
  • Create a substantial penalty of up to $10,000 for the failure to file required statements three or more times in an election cycle;
  • Create a new penalty for accepting an excess contribution.  In addition to returning the excess, a candidate or committee could be fined an amount equal to two times the excess plus a civil penalty up to $10,000;
  • Define and require independent expenditures to identify the source of a political communication and penalize violators up to $1,000 or the cost of the independent expenditure, whichever is greater;
  • Mandate that independent expenditures on communications opposing or supporting a candidate or ballot initiative in excess of $1,000 be subject to the same filing requirements currently in place for candidates and political committees;
  • Prohibit a person, campaign committee or political party from falsely identifying the source of a political communication; and
  • Require itemization of candidate and political committee credit card payments and other like payments.

 

You can find much more information about these bills, including the full text, at our Open Legislation site:

S6457

S6439