After yet another public corruption scandal splashed across front pages in January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo insisted the state government would pass ethics reform, and said he would force lawmakers to deal with the issue by attaching ethics measures to the state budget. Cuomo got his wish in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, when the legislature passed a reform package just after a symbolic midnight deadline for an on-time budget.
In a statement, Cuomo claimed the bill “implements the nation’s strongest and most comprehensive disclosure laws for public officials.”
But many believe the changes likely won’t be sufficient to clean the state’s tarnished image. New York earned an overall grade of D from the State Integrity Investigation, a 2012 report by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. Over the past few years, Empire State lawmakers have been convicted of bilking public funds by directing money to nonprofits, collecting per-diem payments for days when they weren’t actually in the capital and a variety of other offenses. In January, then-Speaker Sheldon Silver was charged with accepting millions of dollars in illegal kickbacks.
The ethics package looks to treat the state’s ills with greater transparency. Its signature measure is a requirement that lawmakers with private practices—lawyers, for instance— disclose the names of clients who pay them or their firms $5,000 or more. The bill makes several exceptions, however, including for clients involved in criminal cases or bankruptcy, and it applies only to new clients beginning December 31, 2015. Legislators can also avoid disclosing names by working on retainer for general advice, a clause that many advocates point to as a massive loophole that could render the new requirement largely meaningless.
Other provisions in the legislation will introduce more stringent prohibitions against the personal use of campaign funds, greater disclosure of independent campaign spending and a requirement that lawmakers use an electronic system to verify their attendance at official events in order to receive per diem payments.
Legislative leaders did not introduce the actual language of the bill until Tuesday afternoon, less than 12 hours before a deadline to pass all budget legislation, prompting a coalition of good-government groups to criticize the secrecy surrounding the effort. “It is unacceptable in a functioning democracy that an ethics bill about the disclosure of legislators' outside income hasn't even been disclosed to the public,” the groups said in a statement Tuesday morning.
Those groups and other advocates for reform, including New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, have generally criticized the legislation as inadequate to improve the state’s chronic corruption problems.