Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Times' Spot-on Analysis of Ethics Bill Points to Need for Additional Discussion

Today’s New York Times editorial on the ethics bill released by legislative leaders last week offered a spot-on analysis of the legislation: it’s a small step forward over the status quo, but it falls short of the real reform that New York needs.

In particular, the Times points out the improvements the bill offers, in particular requiring lobbyists to disclose business dealings with legislators and giving "the Board of Elections new clout by empowering it to investigate and fine lawmakers who violate the few campaign laws that do exist." It also seizes upon the bills biggest shortcomings, including the loophole that exempts lawyer-legislators from disclosing their clients, the fact that legislators continue to control the body intended to monitor their compliance with ethics laws, and the bill’s failure to make substantial changes to the state’s campaign finance system, all concerns that we share.

Of the disclosure exemption for legislators, the Times writes, “A lawmaker’s first obligation is to the public, not the clients.” We have written before that the claim that lawyers are forbidden from listing their clients is largely bogus. But more to the point, New Yorkers should ask their legislators: given your obligation to serve the public, why choose to represent clients whose interests are served by secrecy? Lawyers have the ability to decide who they represent, and if accepting a potential client would cause a conflict of interest with a legislator’s public duties – including their duty to reveal their outside sources of income – why take on that business?

Despite the way that legislative leaders have framed the discussion around the bill, there is no reason that the Senate cannot have a robust debate about this and other problems with the legislation. As of Friday, the Senate website showed the bill coming before the Senate Codes committee this morning. As my colleague Larry Norden wrote yesterday, Senators who want to give this bill the public hearing it deserves should use this opportunity to petition for a hearing, as is allowed by the new Senate rules.

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