Ethics bill not the whole package, say pols


It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

That was the general reaction from local elected officials on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 113-page ethics bill, which passed the Senate and Assembly on Monday.

As soon as Mr. Cuomo signs it, the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011 will create a 14-member Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which will monitor politicians and lobbyists and conduct investigations into potential ethics violations. It will also require legislators to publicly divulge their outside incomes and any legislators who also work as lawyers to disclose their legal work with state agencies. Future legislators convicted of felonies will no longer be allowed to collect pensions.

“I think it has a lot of great things in it ... Is it perfect? It is not,” said state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, who ran on a platform of ethics reform and has been pushing for it since taking the 33rd state Sen. seat of ethically challenged, and now indicted, state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr.

In December, Mr. Espada was charged with stealing more than $500,000 from the taxpayer-funded Soundview Health Center he founded and operated. 

Ethics has loomed large in the state ever since last year’s election. Former Mayor Ed Koch started New York Uprising, pushing for ethics reform.

Many legislators, including Mr. Espada, were called “heroes of reform” by Mr. Koch for signing a pledge. 

Mr. Cuomo also campaigned on cleaning up Albany. And four senators, including state Sen. Jeff Klein, left the Democratic Conference to form the Independent Democratic Conference early this year, citing the Senate’s handling of ethical issue as a main reason for their departure. They quickly introduced a package of bills that Mr. Klein described as “almost identical” to Mr. Cuomo’s current package.

“I think its one of the toughest ethics bills in the country,” Mr. Klein said of Mr. Cuomo’s proposal. State Sen. Adriano Espaillat called it a great start and called Mr. Cuomo’s first session as governor a big success. Mr. Rivera and Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz had a more nuanced reaction. They liked the bill, but found flaws. 

For Mr. Rivera, it doesn’t go far enough.

He said public campaign financing, rules governing donations to candidates during elections, should have been included. He also said redistricting reform — changing the rules governing the drawing of district lines to reflect population change over the last decade — should have been part of the package. 

Mr. Dinowitz questioned the makeup of the new 14-member Joint Commission.

Comprising non-elected officials, six (three Republicans and three Democrats) will be appointed by the governor. Four Republicans and two Democrats will be appointed by legislative leaders.

“I just think that if there’s going to be this commission, it should look as independent as possible,” Mr. Dinowitz said, adding that the commission should allow independents or smaller parties like the Working Families party to appoint members. 

He said the two-party appointed committee was probably the only way to get broad-based support to pass the bill.

Mr. Klein said Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos insisted on this makeup to make sure one party couldn’t conduct a “witch hunt against another.”

The way the commission would vote for an ethics investigation has also been called into question. 

Any two out of three governor’s appointments could block an investigation into a member of the executive branch, meaning that a vote of 12 to 2 in favor of the investigation could lose. 

Similarly, three votes against conducting an investigation into a state legislator could block 11 votes in favor of an investigation.

Although legislators’ will have to reveal more about their outside incomes, Mr. Dinowitz said he doubts it will do anything to prevent ethically challenged elected officials from stealing money.