According to the new chair of the state Senate's Ethics Committee, Tony Avella, and a recent news report, public relations firms are playing two positions in the field of government influence.
The Queens Democrat says the dual-role these firms are fulfilling is an ethical issue that needs to be addressed.
A member of the breakaway Democrats in the Senate, Avella, is drafting legislation that would hold public relations firms to the same disclosure standards as lobbyists.
Avella released a statement April 2 expressing concern about the possibility that some PR firms may have extra pull over elected officials.
"As chair of the Ethics Committee, I was shocked to learn that public and strategic communications firms are not subject to the same registration and disclosure requirements as lobbyists. The fact of the matter is that these firms are meeting with government officials, all the while advocating their outside clients' interests. They are in a position to broker agreements, expedite client meetings and influence decision makers," Avella said in the statement.
In an interview with The Legislative Gazette, Avella cited an April 1 report by NY1 News which looked at the conflict between Berlin-Rosen's work consulting public officials and advising interest groups who try to influence their policies. The report highlighted conflicts between real estate companies who are clients of Berlin-Rosen and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's initiative to increase the amount of affordable housing in the City.
"There's always been an unhealthy relationship between PR firms and various interest groups," Avella explained. "These are very complex issues that negatively affect public perception of government."
Berlin-Rosen would not provide comment on Avella's pending legislation.
"While I have already supported legislation that would separate the activity of lobbyists and political consultants, we must not ignore the questions raised by PR and communications activities, as well. It is high time that we review the law regulating these activities and I am committed to developing legislation that would require disclosure for all firms that have substantial contact with both elected officials and outside clients," Avella said in the April 2 statement.
Avella's spokeswoman Heather Sager said the senator's office is still working out the details of the new bill.
Avella also sponsors legislation (S.4690/A.6585) that would both prohibit lobbyists from participating in political consulting activities and prohibit political consultants from lobbying state officials. The bill would also require financial disclosure of any political consulting services used during a campaign. Sandra Galef sponsors the bill in the Assembly.
"There is a fine difference between campaigning and lobbying," Avella told The Gazette. "This is obviously a good-government issue. It reduces public trust in government. I'm going to push this legislation until it passes."
Avella also sponsors legislation (S.892) that would dissolve the legislative ethics commission and give their duties to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, an investigative body created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and which has been criticized in the past as being ineffective. The commission received a 27 percent increase, or an additional, $1.2 million, in funding in this year's budget.
Avella said, "As we work to repair public trust in our elected officials, we must no longer tolerate lobbyists in consultants' clothing."
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