Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Other States Provide Better Models for Ethics Oversight

It is the beginning of election season, and calls for ethics reform in New York State abound. Helping us to sort through this “Christmas in May” situation is a great pro bono law firm, Kaye Scholar. Associates Leah Kagan and Lindsay Moilanen, overseen by Partner Jim Herschlein, have been examining the structures and powers of ethics commissions in several states to give us a means of comparison in New York. We expect that in the coming months the project will serve as a trove of good ideas as reform proposals surface.

Most calls for reform from outside Albany include an end to the self-policing nature of oversight. Currently, separate ethics commissions are charged with oversight of the legislature and executive branch in New York State. The Legislative Ethics Commission is comprised of nine members, four of whom are legislators, with the remaining five members appointed by legislative leaders. The 13-member Commission on Public Integrity oversees statewide elected officials and lobbyists. Though both Commissions have the power to investigate, fine and refer extreme cases for further action, these are rare occurrences. Simply put, members of both Commissions owe their positions to the elected officials who appointed them.

All agree that what is needed is an atmosphere filled with powerful disincentives for corrupt behavior. And intuitively, self-policing ethics oversight would be the wrong message going forward. Yet publicly, elected officials express concern that a strong, effective ethics oversight body would be manipulated for political means, hindering real change to this structure.

In fact, preliminary research has shown that several states have removed oversight from the hands of legislators and given it instead to entities dominated by an independent majority. Spending a few minutes examining the territory of ethics oversight reveals that self-policing practices could be the poorest option going forward.

A few examples:

In Louisiana, a single ethics commission oversees the executive and legislative branches. The eleven-member commission is selected by the governor and legislature from a list of nominees put together by a nominating committee comprised of the presidents of eight of the state’s leading private universities.

In California, the Fair Political Practices Commission, established after a voter ballot initiative in the 1970’s, has five members, none of whom are appointed by the legislature. The five commissioners are selected by the Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State and Comptroller, with not more than three members from the same political party.

In Washington State, separate ethics commissions oversee the legislature and executive branches. However, the Legislative Ethics Board consists of nine members, only four of whom are appointed by legislators. The remaining five are citizen members, four of whom are chosen by the governor from lists submitted by legislative caucuses, and the fifth elected by the other four citizen members.

In Alaska, legislative ethics are overseen by two separate entities, the Senate and House Subcommittees. These subcommittee consist of seven members each, two of whom are legislators, the remaining five public members are selected by the Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court and ratified by two-third of the full membership of the Senate or House. The legislative members of these subcommittees cannot serve as chair or vice-chair of these committees.

In Connecticut, ethics enforcement for both the executive and legislative branches is overseen by the nine member Citizens Ethics Advisory Board. Though legislative leaders appoint six of the nine members, two of the six are appointed after being nominated by “a citizens group with an interest in ethical government.” To further minimize charges of politically motivated enforcement actions, complaints are submitted to a randomly selected judge trial referee for findings of probably cause. The judge trial referee is selected by the judicial branch in Connecticut from a list of retired judges who have volunteered for this duty. After a finding of probably cause, a new judge trial referee is selected to preside at the public hearing.

We encourage reform advocates to consider adopting one or some combination of the above examples, or to engineer a new structure. And also, to stay tuned to these empirical comparisons.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Goodbye and Thanks, Jay

We were saddened to learn this morning that Jay Gallagher, veteran of the Capitol Press Corps in Albany, passed away last night after a difficult struggle with pancreatic cancer. Right up until the end, Jay continued to serve our state by asking lawmakers tough questions and opening state government to the people. Throughout his illness, Jay continued to share his incisive commentary on state politics through a League of Women Voters blog, and less than three weeks ago, Jay served as the voice of voters and good government advocates at Albany on the Record.

Jay’s love of New York was evident in everything that he did, and over his 25 years of covering state government, he made our state better in ways both large and small. He will be missed. To read the moving eulogy released by Jay’s daughters this morning, click here.

Monday, May 24, 2010

On Cuomo's Reform Agenda

Accompanying the long-awaited announcement of his candidacy for Governor, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo released a 224-page “New NY Agenda” that outlines the issue areas on which he will focus during the campaign and – he hopes – in office.

The chapter on reforming state government covers many of the issues the Brennan Center and its allies have been pushing for years. The agenda includes independent ethics oversight, a pay to play ban, disclosure of lawmakers’ outside income, an independent redistricting commission, reforming the member item grant process, and an overhaul of campaign finance laws that includes public financing, a reduction in contribution limits, limits on soft money (including narrowing the so-called “housekeeping accounts” loophole), and increased enforcement.

Cuomo apparently intends to tour the state asking other candidates to sign on to this agenda, but this effort has already met with some resistance. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who would be required under Cuomo’s plan to disclose information about his clients that he has previously kept secret, said he would not be signing on, asserting that pledges “never really mean much.”

In this sense, Silver may be right: pledges only mean something if they are followed by action. The true measure of Cuomo's commitment to reform will be the work he does to make his ambitious plans come to fruition if he is elected.

But this agenda is a good first step, and we hope that other candidates similarly commit themselves to cleaning up state government. As Brennan Center Democracy Program Director Susan Liss reminded us in an excellent Daily News editorial this weekend, lawmakers who don’t take steps to reform our broken state government may finally face the populist wrath from which they have so far been sheltered.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

New Yorkers Take Action to Restore Voting Rights

Cross-posted from

The effort to restore voting rights in New York is gaining momentum. Today, over 100 New Yorkers sent postcards to their legislators and Governor Paterson urging them to restore the right to vote to people in New York who are on parole and probation.

New York law disenfranchises individuals in prison or on parole. As we have mentioned in previous posts, this law has a stark impact on people of color. A new Brennan Center report, titled Jim Crow in New York, confirms that the current criminal disenfranchisement law traces back to a century-long effort to keep African-American citizens out of the voting booth. As a result, over 80% of those denied the right to vote in the Empire State are African-American or Latino.

And New Yorkers are finally calling on our state leaders to end this injustice.

This writing campaign stems from a lively public conversation held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on this very issue. The discussion included Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III from the Abyssinian Baptist Church of the City of New York, Hazel Dukes from the NAACP New York State Conference, Glenn Martin from the Fortune Society, and Columbia Law Professor Theodore Shaw.

Hopefully Albany will heed its constituents’ demands. There are several bills pending in both the Assembly and the Senate that would restore the right to vote to people with a prior criminal conviction.

Among them is legislation introduced by Assemblyman O’Donnell and Senator Thompson that restores voting rights to people on parole. The bills have been referred to the Assembly Committee on Election Law and the Senate Committee on Elections.

Senator Montgomery and Assemblyman Wright have also introduced the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act that would help eliminate some of the confusion about who is eligible to vote. The bill would require the Department of Corrections and the Board of Parole to provide information to individuals about their voting rights once they regain eligibility. The bill passed the full Assembly in June 2009 and is currently pending in the Senate Elections Committee. (The Brennan Center testified in favor of this bill in April 2009). Similar bills have passed the Assembly twice before.

Contact us to request postcards to tell your elected officials that it is time to restore voting rights to people with prior convictions.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Setting the Record Straight on New York Uprising

The Brennan Center never provides material support to efforts to influence the outcome of elections. An article in last week's Legislative Gazette incorrectly stated that New York Uprising, which has successfully obtained pledges from gubernatorial candidates regarding redistricting reforms, had received support from the Brennan Center and other good government groups. The Brennan Center has studied redistricting for a decade: our extensive materials are available on our website free of charge, our attorneys regularly speak with groups of all kinds as part of our education and outreach about this issue and we often comment on various proposals for reform. Deeply committed to reform of New York’s state government, we do not oppose or support any specific candidates, and, by extension, candidate pledges.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Making it Harder for the Next Joe Bruno

We’ve just learned that former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno was sentenced to two years in prison for violations of the state’s honest services law.

As we’ve written before, one of the most disturbing things about the Bruno case is that much of the unethical behavior of which Bruno is accused is completely permissible under New York State’s notoriously weak ethics laws.

While the legislature’s major ethics overhaul was killed by the governor’s veto pen earlier this year, smaller reform measures have made strides toward closing some of the most egregious loopholes in the state’s laws that govern public officials’ behavior. A bill signed in February made it illegal for public officials to use state resources for private pursuits for which they get money, and a new bill, called the Public Corruption Prevention and Enforcement Act, would create a stricter definition of public services fraud and increase the penalties for corruption.

At yesterday’s Albany on the Record event, Governor Paterson said he was continuing to work with the legislature to achieve the major overhaul that the state’s ethics laws so badly need. Of the bill he vetoed spring, the Governor said that an ethics bill shouldn’t just be responsive to a particular event (like the Bruno trial), but rather should be a holistic and forward-thinking solution.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Liveblogging Albany on the Record

Join us at 11am tomorrow, May 5 for live commentary from Albany on the Record!

Monday, May 03, 2010

Skelos' Links to Lobbyists and Other Matters Worth Discussing with Legislative Leaders

The New York Post had a story this weekend about the lobbying group, Empire Government Strategies (EGS), funded by Senate Minority Leader Den Skelos’ law firm. According to EGS’ chairman, the lobbying firm is ‘operationally independent’ of the law firm from which Skelos draws a paycheck, but the association may be a little too close for comfort.

Skelos – like his counterparts in the majority leadership of both chambers – is not required by current state law to disclose his clients at his law firm, so it’s difficult to know if anyone with an interest in influencing state policy has a direct impact on his income. At the very least, the Post points out, Skelos “still collects a paycheck from a law firm with a vested interest in the lobbyist outfit’s success.”

New Yorkers will have the opportunity to ask Skelos about this association and other issues related to government reform at this Wednesday’s Albany on the Record event. Skelos will be joined by Senator Sampson, Assemblymen Silver and Kolb, and Comptroller DiNapoli. Yours truly will be live blogging the event.