Monday, February 08, 2010

Two New Ethics Proposals

Following on last week’s veto of the legislature’s ethics bill, legislative leaders are meeting today behind closed doors to determine whether they have the votes necessary for an override.

The good news is that the bill’s sponsor, Senator Schneiderman, seems to recognize that the legislature’s work isn’t done. Schneiderman introduced two bills, one more ambitious than the other, that amend the original ethics bill to move closer to certain reforms that the governor has cited as necessary for the legislation to win his approval. The two new bills each deal with different issues in the original bill, S6457. Notably, the bill that is narrower in scope has a "same as" number in the Assembly; the more ambitious bill does not.

On Friday, Senator Schneiderman introduced S6792, a technical corrections bill that addresses some of more basic points of contention in the debate surrounding the original legislation by making the following changes:

  • Explicitly grants the lobbying commission to conduct any investigation necessary to carry out its mandate, fixing the problem we and others identified with the commission’s mandate to receive referrals but inability to investigate them;
  • Establishes a procedure for addressing tie votes on the governing board overseeing the legislative office of ethics investigations;
  • Explicitly requires each conference to appoint one legislator and one non-legislator to the legislative ethics commission;
  • Creates additional offices on the Board of Elections with deputies of opposite political parties;
  • Requires the Board of Elections enforcement counsel to report allegations that she does not deem a violation of law to the Board of Elections for a second opinion; and
  • Allows the deputy enforcement counsel to review both preliminary and final investigation files and issue a public, written concurrence or dissent.

This morning - the day that the New York Times ran its fifth editorial calling for legislators who are attorneys to disclose their clients - Senator Schneiderman introduced S6794, a more sweeping bill that consists of a series of reforms meant to strengthen the legislature’s earlier proposals, most notably with respect to the disclosure of outside income:

  • Requires officials who practice law to provide (i) the name and address of each client, (ii) the compensation for such services for each client, and (iii) a general description of the services rendered. Individuals practicing law or providing consulting services must provide a general description of the subject matters undertaken by the law firm or business entity. (Interestingly, the bill carves out a large exception for plaintiffs’ lawyers: “Do not list the value of compensation if the services rendered involve a contingency fee as provided by law.”);
  • Requires individuals who are partners or shareholders in a law firm to list every client of the firm that provides more than $5,000 in compensation to the firm in the prior year, including a description of the services rendered;
  • Establishes designating commissions for the purpose of appointing members of both ethics compliance commissions (the legislative and executive ethics commissions remain separate under the legislation);
  • Requires reporting individuals to disclose payments from an entity if the reporting individual solicited business from a third party on behalf of that entity;
  • Requires that public officials file a report with the appropriate oversight commission within 30 days of commencing a business relationship with a lobbyist. These reports must describe the nature of the relationship, the amount of compensation and are to be available for public inspection via the internet. (The last version of the ethics bill placed the burden to report business dealings between officials and lobbyists only upon the lobbyist.);
  • Increases the number of categories of income, for a total of 15, ranging from under $5,000 to “1.0 million and over" -- to give the public a better sense of the amount of income from each source; and
  • Requires filers to include assets and income of a “domestic partner.” The current form requires only disclosure of assets and income of a “spouse.”

We’re glad to see some recognition that the legislature’s work on ethics is far from finished. We’ll be gladder still if both proposals are subjected to thorough public review.

Laura Seago and Kelly Williams

No comments: