Monday, September 29, 2008

Assemblyman Kellner Discloses
Disclosure Form

Micah Kellner, Assemblyman of the 65th district of Manhattan's Upper East Side, released his ethics disclosure form for us to post and for all to see. It's available as a PDF file download here. For the unfamiliar it's worth reading for the range of questions.

Members' ethics forms aren't readily accessible to the public. To obtain copies one must make a Freedom of Information Law request of the state Legislative Ethics Commission. And, even then, as Jeremy Peters of the New York Times reported, imporant portions are omitted.

We invite other members of the legislature to send their non-redacted disclosure forms; we'll post them too. Send to, subject line "Full Disclosure."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What's Good for the Land of Lincoln...

After a raft of corruption scandals and investigations in the state, the Illinois Senate voted unanimously to approve a ban on pay-to-play aimed at the Governor. A day later the Senate passed a measure that would extend the pay-to-play ban to themselves. It still remains to be seem what happens in the Illinois House, but these are remarkable developments considering the state's track record on reform.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Assembly Ethics Committee to Meet

The Assembly Ethics Committee will reportedly meet today. Since the proceedings are cloaked in secrecy the could be talking about a number of things. As the WXXI story points out, unlike other legislative standing committees, the Ethics Committee is not required to deliberate in public and neither their deliberations or finding are made public.

This isn't the Manhattan Project; these are our elected representatives and the public has a right to know about the work of the committee.

In fact, the legislative ethics committees, not to be confused with the similarly secretive Legislative Ethics Commission, rarely holds meetings. This stands in stark contrast to the recently created Commission on Public Integrity, which oversees the executive branch and lobbyists. The CPI holds regular public hearings and releases its opinions.

Since all four members of the legislature who either stand accused of corruption, plead guilty, await sentencing or face a trial all hail from New York City, here's an idea for a new Manhattan Project: hold public hearings on the various models for ethics reform.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Seminerio and Reform Day:
Now It Can Be Told

In April of this year my former colleague Beth Foster and I had the pleasure of participating Common Cause's Reform Day of Action. Included in our list of meetings was Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, who now stands accused of banking $500,000 for his official duties.

We spoke about the many items on the reform agenda: campaign finance, redistricting, rules and, of course, ethics.

The Assemblyman's response to our position that Albany needed reforming? "Why? What's wrong with Albany," he said rhetorically.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Argument for an Activist CPI

One of the quirks of ethics reform ushered through in 2007 is that the new Commission on Public Integrity (CPI), which combined the Temporary Commission on Lobbying and the Ethics Commission, has jurisdiction over the executive branch, but not the Legislature. However, CPI also has jurisdiction over lobbyists who do business with both branches of government.

As we know, the lobbying reform, called "sweeping" by the Assembly, made mostly cosmetic changes where the Legislature was concerned. And, the ethics charges others keep on coming.

The recent charges against Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio present an interesting situation, The compliant alleges that nearly $400,000 was paid to a consulting company controlled by Seminerio by a Queens hospital since 2000. According to a NewYork Times story earlier this week: "several hospital industry officials said that the hospital described in the complaint fit the profile of Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in Queens."

Now, several of our reform colleagues have filed a request with the CPI to compel an investigation of the Seminerio matter through jurisdiction over lobbying.

I've argued before that CPI should take an activist stance with its jurisdiction and issue opinions that may only affect the executive branch, but nonetheless would serve as a warning to the Legislature. That was in the case of a city public school, er, campus naming for Queens Senator Frank Padavan, who was and is in the midst of a reelection fight tied to control of his chamber. (The city Chancellor's regulations forbid naming public school after the living, but is silent as to a campus.)

In Padavan's example, the CPI could have issued an opinion that naming public property for people serving in the executive branch is a violation of the public officers law since there is an obvious value attached. (Elected officials cannot receive extra compensation or any gift of more than nominal value.) For proof look no further than the multi-million dollar annual price tags for naming rights for the area stadiums under construction. I wasn't arguing then or now that public schools are on the order of sports stadiums, merely that naming rights have some value.

True a CPI opinion about naming public would have no force on the Legislature, however it would have served as notice by a respected body and a warning that somebody is minding the ethics store.

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.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

State Primary: The Inventor vs. The Aviator

Included in the mailing of absentee ballots for the upcoming state primary are instructions on how to vote showing a hypothetical race between Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart (below). Who did the city Board of Elections "vote" for? Edison. However, including instructions in three other languages--Spanish, Chinese and Koren--the two came out even 2-2.