In light of last week's corruption sweep in New Jersey, it’s worth taking a look at the state of ethics in New York. While it’s tough to top the allegations of kidney trafficking and cash-stuffed cereal boxes involved in the New Jersey case, we certainly have our share of corruption. As we wrote in our 2008 report, four members of the Assembly alone faced corruption charges last year. One the Senate side, former Majority Leader Joe Bruno was indicted in January for accepting over $3 million from entities seeking state contracts, and coup leader Pedro Espada’s attempts to funnel state money to nonprofits that he has a history of illegally using as an extension of his political campaign are now well known.
The state’s ethics infrastructure was overhauled by the less-than-successful Public Employees Ethics Reform Act of 2007 (PEERA). Perhaps most strikingly, the law allowed the legislature to retain oversight authority over itself. The Legislative Ethics Commission, the body that oversees the Senate and the Assembly, is chaired by members of the very bodies that the Commission is intended to regulate. Of the nine members of the Commission, four are legislators and the other five are appointed by legislative leaders (this means that the ethically-challenged Espada now has appointment authority).
Just days before the Senate coup, Governor Paterson and legislative leaders from both chambers met to discuss reforms to the state’s ethics oversight infrastructure, which PEERA failed to improve. The Governor, Senate Democrats, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver each presented different proposals and were unable to come to an agreement before chaos erupted in the capitol on June 8th.
The proposals range from rolling back very modest steps toward independence made by PEERA to separating legislators from the Legislative Ethics Commission altogether. Silver’s proposal would create two bodies with oversight over the legislature. The first, a Joint Legislative Commission on Ethics Standards, would look very much like the current Legislative Ethics Commission, consisting of four legislators and four non-legislators appointed by legislative leadership. The second, a Legislative Office of Ethics Investigations, would be governed by a board appointed by legislative leaders, none of whom could have been affiliated with the legislature in the two years preceding their appointment. The Senate proposal, sponsored by Senator Daniel Squadron, would merge the Legislative Ethics Commission with the Commission on Public Integrity to create a new body with oversight over both the legislative and executive branches; four of the nine members of the new commission would be appointed by legislative leaders, but no commissioner could be a current or former legislator. The Governor’s proposal is structurally similar to the Senate proposal, but commissioners would be appointed by an independent advisory board (independent appointment of commissioners is something that Paterson has described as a ‘deal breaker’).
While negotiations concerning the reforms were derailed by the coup, ethics reform will likely receive consideration again before the end of the legislative term. It’s worth paying attention to the structures that lawmakers put in place to police themselves and their peers before the cash-stuffed cereal boxes turn up in Albany, too.