Monday, February 07, 2011

Another Call for a Unified Ethics Commission and Client Disclosure

The New York State Bar Association has joined the chorus of good government groups calling for broad reforms to New York State’s ethics laws. In a lengthy report, the NYSBA Task Force on Government Ethics calls for the creation of a single ethics overseer with jurisdiction over the executive branch, the legislature, and lobbyists. Notably, the NYSBA report also calls for more comprehensive disclosure of sources of outside income: “Source of income disclosure should be broadened to include both direct and indirect sources of income,” thus joining the Brennan Center, the New York City Bar Association and others in seeking meaningful financial disclosure from public officials, including those who work as attorneys.

Calls for reform consistently note that there are times when client disclosure is not appropriate, such as instances where the client is a minor or involved in an undisclosed matrimonial matter. Regrettably, we do not agree with the Task Force’s recommendation that the decision about whether to redact a client’s name could be made solely by the public official who serves as her attorney, and that this decision would not be subject to review by the ethics commission (p. 24-25). Other states with comprehensive client disclosure have instituted adequate redaction review procedures for their public officials that more fairly balance privacy concerns with the public interest.

Also, we disagree with the Task Force when it states, without explanation, that

“Attorneys should not be subject to the requirement that income derived from a particular representation be stated by income category. Disclosure that the attorney has received income above the reporting threshold from the client is sufficient, and lessens the intrusion into the attorney-client relationship.”

Public officials who are also attorneys should not be given this unique and unnecessary privilege from a transparency law. Secret fees paid to our public officials are the exact issue that needs to be addressed by a new, better law.

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