Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tony Seminerio Makes Three

Yesterday news broke that longtime Queens Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio has been a accused of taking more than $500,000 from businesses. According to today's New York Times story: "His state ethics forms for 2005, 2006 and 2007 list him as receiving at least $1,000 each year from Marc Consultants." Actually it was quite a bit more, and--here's the important part-- for “the performance of his official duties as a member of the Assembly.”

Part of the problem is that the state's Legislative Ethics Commission, which was created as part of the Public Employees Ethics Reform Act of 2007 (PEERA), is completely opaque. Late last year Casey Hynes and Sarah Clyne Sundberg wrote for a well-researched story about the commission for the Albany Times Union:

But in the 20 years since, despite many instances of elected officials mingling private business interests with political dealings, not a single lawmaker has been sanctioned or pursued criminally through the rules.

Critics say new rules enacted this year by Gov. Eliot Spitzer and other state leaders, who have characterized their work as the most sweeping ethics and lobbying changes in state history, may again fall short.

Lawmakers still control who gets appointed to oversight commissions, enabling the leaders to effectively police themselves through politicized committees whose jobs are to ferret out wrongdoing and report suspected crimes to prosecutors.

Unlike the Commission on Public Integrity, created to oversee the executive branch as part of PEERA, the new commission to oversee the legislature is completely opaque. It's workings are secret and it doesn't make filings widely available to the public without a FOIL request, which arrives partially redacted . As the New York Times reported today: "Because the Legislature keeps tight control over its financial disclosures, more specific information on the amount of income Mr. Seminerio received is redacted before the forms before they are released." The reporting requirements themselves are somewhat weak; legislators are required to disclose categories of income, as written in the law:

Whenever a "value" or "amount" is required to be reported herein, such value or amount shall be reported as being within one of the following Categories: Category A - under $5,000; Category B - $5,000 to under $20,000; Category C - $20,000 to under $60,000; Category D - $60,000 to under $100,000; Category E - $100,000 to under $250,000; and Category F - $250,000 or over.

This marks the third member of the New York City Assembly delegation to be accused of corruption this year. The first was found guilty and is currently serving a sentence of two to six years; another faces up to 1o years in prison in his upcoming sentencing.

Lack of transparency can be an enemy of democracy. Complete transparency by the Legislature may not suddenly cure all of what ails ethics, but it's a well-advised first step.

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