New York State Lawmakers, In Private, Consider Ethics Legislation

5:52 PM, Jan 26, 2011   |    comments
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Gannett Albany Bureau

ALBANY -- State lawmakers are quietly discussing ethics legislation that could require elected officials to further reveal the extent of their outside income and business clients.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said earlier this week he was in "active negotiations" for a bill that would require full disclosure of lawmakers' outside income.

"I think what's important is, is that if there's any question about any of the members here, it's important to do it, period," Silver told reporters of a disclosure bill being passed this year, adding that a bill could be ready within days for lawmakers to consider.

Lawmakers and elected officials in New York are required to submit to a state ethics panel their sources of income other than their state pay, along with that of their spouses. That includes income from stock, pensions and trusts.

However, they are only required to provide vague ranges of their income, such as "$250,000 and above" leaving the specific amount unknown.

Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, the No. 2 Republican in the state Senate, said he favored a full disclosure bill, adding that there were "quiet" discussions about a possible ethics package.

But with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget due to be released Tuesday, legislators are consumed with preparing for deep cuts in spending to a variety of state programs in order to close a $10 billion gap.

"That doesn't mean any of the parties are any less committed to passing an ethics bill," Libous said.

Efforts to have lawmakers reveal more information have faltered in recent years. Legislators approved a disclosure and ethics measure last year, but it was vetoed by Gov. David Paterson after he claimed it didn't go far enough.

Cuomo, a Democrat, said during his campaign that he would back full disclosure of both outside income and clients. He also wants to create an independent entity to oversee and police ethics in state government.

Good-government advocates are optimistic Cuomo will sign into law this year a stringent ethics measure after years of disappointment.

"Hope springs eternal," said Blair Horner, the legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "I think this governor is interested in making it happen."

He also hopes the legislation addresses a thorny issue in Albany: the revealing of clients who do business with a legislator's firm or private company.

Silver, a lawyer with the personal injury firm Weitz and Luxenberg, has refused to reveal who the firm represents.
But Horner added that legislators should make a distinction between legal clients and those who simply patronize a legislator's outside business.

"How do they draw that line?" Horner said. "What's considered too burdensome?

It's a good sign that lawmakers are discussing a possible ethics deal, said Barbara Bartoletti, the legislative director of the New York League of Women Voters. But she's concerned that legislators and the governor won't give the public a chance to have input on the bill before it's voted on.

"We're encouraged that there are negotiations going on," Bartoletti said. "We hope that we're not presented with a take it or leave it type of thing."

Senate lawmakers interviewed said they favored a disclosure bill and would vote for it.

"I'm fine with disclosing outside income," said Sen. Thomas O'Mara, R-Big Flats, Chemung County, and a lawyer. "We're in elected positions and with that comes some disclosure that you have to do."

Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, said voters demand their elected officials provide more information on their financial activities.

"I think that people are expecting us to be more forthcoming, more transparent," she said.

Gannett ContentOne - Albany, NY

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