June 22, 2009

Assembly Passes Legislation To Reform New York's Ethics And Lobbying Laws

Silver/Kolb Bill Would Restore Independent Oversight Entities for Executive and
Legislative Branches, Lobbyist; Significantly Strengthen Financial and
Lobbying Disclosure Requirements

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb today announced that the Assembly passed legislation (A.9032) aimed at strengthening compliance with and enforcement of New York's ethics and lobbying laws and providing the public with improved accountability and transparency through greater financial disclosure by public officials and lobbyists. In addition, the bill requires detailed information about consulting arrangements.

Joining the leaders in support of the measure were Assembly Ethics and Guidance Committee Chair Bill Magnarelli, Governmental Operations Committee Chair RoAnn Destito, Election Law Committee Chair Joan Millman and Ethics and Guidance Committee Ranking Minority Member Will Barclay.

In 2007 a new ethics and lobbying oversight structure was formed through the creation of the Commission on Public Integrity. This body was charged with overseeing ethics compliance by executive branch employees and gave the majority of the appointments to the governor.

Calling the current structure "ineffective," Silver said the legislation approved by the Assembly would create multiple bodies, which would allow them to develop areas of expertise that would function independently from the branches of government and the lobbying industry which they seek to regulate.

"Two years ago we took a major step forward by passing reforms that banned gifts from registered lobbyists, restricted former employees from lobbying government for two years and created stronger penalties for lobbying law violations," said Silver (D-Manhattan). "Today, guided by what we have learned over the past two years and through our public hearing this month on ethics reform, the Assembly has approved legislation providing greater accountability and oversight of state government."

"As public servants, we always need to lead by example. Strengthening ethics for the Legislative and Executive branches, along with disclosure requirements for lobbyists, reflects a commitment to the types of accountability, transparency, openness and oversight that New Yorkers have long demanded of their government and the men and women serving in it. I am pleased we could add this ethics reform initiative to the list of bi-partisan legislation enacted this session," said Kolb (R,I,C-Canandaigua).

"Ethics laws are designed to protect the integrity of the government and its employees. The legislation passed by the Assembly today restores independent oversight and provides for greater financial disclosure. Good government requires a system based on checks and balances. This bill provides exactly that," said Magnarelli (D-Syracuse).

"Transparency and accountability are all too often lacking in our state government. By replacing the ineffective commission with a new, stronger entity, restoring an independent lobbying commission, and providing for the first time, truly independent investigations -- both the law and its enforcement in Albany will be significantly improved," said Destito (D/WF-Rome).

"This is an important next step in ensuring full transparency from state elected officials. I have always advocated for transparency because it makes government more efficient and accountable to the public. I hope to continue to build upon this important legislation," said Millman (D-Brooklyn).

"New Yorkers deserve a state government that is 100 percent committed to serving their interests, not the special interests. Today's passage of bi-partisan ethics reform legislation signifies my ongoing commitment to making real, positive change in how state government operates and serves the taxpayers. I was pleased to support this measure and will continue working toward additional reforms to ensure the legislative process is driven by bi-partisan solutions, and not the influence of special interests," said Barclay (R,C,I-Pulaski).

Lobbying Reform
Silver said the legislation would create a new entity with the expertise to ensure the close oversight of various lobbying practices. The New York State Commission on Lobbying Ethics and Compliance would be established to restore an independent commission on lobbying. The commission would be comprised of six members. Two of the members would be appointed by the Governor and one appointment each would be made by the Temporary President of the Senate, the Speaker of the Assembly, the Minority Leader of the Senate and the Minority Leader of the Assembly.

Under the legislation, members would serve four-year terms and would be responsible for electing a chair and vice-chair through a majority vote. The chair and vice-chair would serve one year terms and each would be required to be a member of a different political party. The position of executive director also would be for a fixed term, and that official would be appointed by a majority vote of the commission board members and could only be removed for cause.

The bill also seeks to clarify vague language in current law when it comes to certain restrictions on lobbying. A "widely attended event" is defined as a gathering of at least 25 people - excluding individuals from the government entity in which the public officer serves - and "nominal food and beverage" would be valued at less than $10. The law would also allow transportation for tours and inspections of New York State facilities and properties if related to the public official's duties.

Executive Ethics and Compliance Commission
The bill would replace the current Commission on Public Integrity with the Executive Ethics and Compliance Commission to oversee ethics compliance by the executive branch, including state agencies. In order to ensure the independence of the Executive Commission in any investigation of statewide office holders, the legislation would create an oversight panel comprised of six commissioners, with two each being appointed by the governor, attorney general and comptroller. The appointees, whose sole focus would be on ethics, would select the executive director who would serve a fixed three-year term and who could only be removed for cause.

Joint Legislative Commission on Ethics Standards
In order to remove any real or perceived conflict, the Assembly proposal separates the legislative oversight body into a compliance body and an investigative body. The current Legislative Ethics Commission would be replaced with an eight-member Joint Legislative Commission on Ethics Standards. Four members would be legislators appointed by each of the legislative leaders. The remaining four members, who would also be appointed by each of the legislative leaders, could not be current or former members of the legislature, legislative candidates or legislative employees.

This administrative entity would be responsible for issuing advisory opinions, financial disclosure, ethics training and education and for imposing penalties for violations of sections 73, 73-a, and 74 of the public officers law.

A second, independent investigatory entity would be created as the Legislative Office of Ethics Investigation. This body would be responsible for investigation of alleged violations of the ethics laws. Each legislative leader would have two appointments to the eight member board. None of the board members could be legislators or legislative staff. The Office of Ethics Investigation would receive complaints from the public, and would also receive referrals of cases for investigation from the Joint Legislative Commission on Ethics Standards and the Senate and Assembly standing committees on ethics.

Financial and Lobbying Disclosure
Provisions of the legislation would tighten financial disclosure requirements. The bill would require increased financial disclosure by all public officials by ending the practice of redacting categories of value on legislative ethics disclosure forms, adding an additional category of value to better identify higher-level financial interests, and requiring better descriptions of outside employment including information about business and appearances before state agencies.

The legislation would also increase lobbying disclosure by requiring lobbyists and clients of lobbyists to disclose business relationships they have with state public officials.

The bill would also require the Committee on Open Government to prepare an annual report outlining the public actions of the Joint Legislative Commission on Ethics Standards, the Legislative Office of Ethics Investigations, the State Commission on Lobbying, the Senate and Assembly Committees on Ethics and the Executive Ethics and Compliance Commission. The annual report, which would be due by March 1, must be delivered to the governor, attorney general, comptroller, and all four leaders in the Legislature.