Friday, December 16, 2011

Court to Rule on Primary Date

U.S. District Court Judge Gary Sharpe indicated this week that he would reach a decision within the next few weeks on the date for New York’s primaries in a case involving the state’s compliance with the Federal MOVE Act. The MOVE Act was enacted to ensure that members of the military and other U.S. citizens abroad have the opportunity to receive and return absentee ballots on a timely basis.

The New York legislature failed again to pass legislation this session to change its September primary date to ensure compliance with the MOVE Act, which requires that absentee ballots be sent to voters overseas at least 45 days before a general election. In years past, the state was granted a waiver from the Department of Defense. This year however, the request for a waiver was denied.

A coalition of civic groups, including the Brennan Center, wrote Judge Sharpe urging him to favor a June primary. Senate Republicans on the other hand, arguing that since June is typically when the legislature wraps up its session, favor an August primary. Given that August is typically a month when many New Yorkers are on vacation, we believe that it would likely result in low turnout election. August is also the month when many students are going away to college. Moreover, if a there is a delay in certification of an election (due to either counting absentee ballots or litigation), there is a chance that an August primary may not allow enough time to comply with the MOVE Act.

The Election Commissioners’ Association of New York State has also come out in favor of a June primary. They have noted that many public schools used as polling sites are closed during the last two weeks in August and opening them up would result in an additional cost for local boards.

Given the legislature’s inaction, the matter will now rests in the hands of the court. We sincerely hope that Judge Sharpe will take these views into consideration when issuing his decision.

Money and Politics This Week

Every Friday, the Brennan Center will be compiling the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform. We’ll also be linking to dispatches from around the country highlighting the national scope of this crisis. This week’s links were contributed by Matthew Ladd.

For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag #moNeYpolitics

NY Campaign Finance and Ethics News

1. Gov. Cuomo’s office has released the names of the commissioners appointed to New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics. Gov. Cuomo appointed six of the commission’s 14 members, including chairwoman Janet DiFiore, the Westchester County District Attorney; six more were appointed by Senate majority leader Dean Skelos and Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver. Yet the picks have generated some criticism, particularly the appointment of Manhattan attorney Ravi Batra, a former legal partner of Clarence Norman, who was convicted of misusing campaign funds while he chaired the Brooklyn Democratic Party. According to Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, “It’s as if the Senate Democrats had not put on their eyeglasses.”

2. The corruption trial of City Councilman Larry Seabrook, charged with funneling over $1 million in public money to nonprofit groups that he controlled, as well as family members and friend, ended last Friday in a mistrial. Seabrook was interviewed earlier this week on NY1 to defend himself, an appearance that drew a scathing editorial from the New York Post, which wished US Attorney Preet Bharara “the best of luck” in retrying him.

3. On Wednesday, the New York Public Interest Research Group released a report tracking lobbying expenditures during the first 10 months of 2011. The report reveals that the Committee to Save New York, a coalition of business and real estate organizations, spent nearly $10 million in 2011, far beyond the $6.8 million spent by the next-highest lobbying group. The report can be downloaded here.

4. Carl Kruger, whose corruption trial is scheduled to begin in January, may also be finally facing some real competition for his senate seat. Although no formal announcement has been made, Brooklyn City Councilman Lew Fidler is rumored to be considering a run against Kruger in 2013.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Joint Commission on Public Ethics Appointments: A Good First Step

We are encouraged that the Governor and legislative leaders yesterday announced a full slate of appointees to the new Joint Commission on Public Ethics (J-COPE). We hope this large group of citizens will set to work immediately and be given all of the resources it needs to begin the hard tasks ahead. This is an impressive group, with many years of experience so we should be optimistic.

We now further urge legislative leaders to also fulfill their obligation to jointly appoint the crucial ninth member of the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC). The troubled LEC has operated since inception in 2007 without this ninth member, an outsider who was supposed to have been appointed by legislative leadership to ensure that a majority of members were not legislators. [1] Going forward, J-COPE will have some powers to oversee the ethics laws that apply to legislators, but the LEC will have authority to enforce most charges, which makes this ninth member vital. [2]

[1] The LEC’s other eight members are either legislators or persons appointed by legislative leadership.

[2] Section 14-a: “The JCOPE shall have jurisdiction to investigate, but shall have no jurisdiction to impose penalties upon members of or candidates for member of the legislature or legislative employees for any violation of the public officers law.” Findings of investigations are reported to the Legislative Ethics Commission.

Friday, December 09, 2011

New York State Ethics Oversight: Timely Implementation

When New York State’s new ethics law was announced in June of 2011, editorial boards and citizens responded in typical New York fashion some with praise, others with the proverbial “Bronx cheer.” The law is both a product of many political compromises and, at the same time, a vast improvement over the ineffective self-policing system of legislative ethics enforcement that existed before, so timely and orderly implementation of the new joint commission on public ethics will send an important message to New Yorkers.

The law requires that the new ethics watchdog be fully operational on December 12, just 120 days after enactment. This means that by next week, 14 new commissioners must have been appointed by legislative leaders and the executive branch, who in turn will have hired an executive director approved by a bipartisan majority of the new commission. The law requires that the new commission also approve a staffing plan for the day to day work, adopt rules and regulations to govern its procedures, make forms available, review financial disclosure statements, continue investigations that were suspended earlier this year and begin receiving and investigating complaints and referrals.

It is an ambitious mandate and we hope legislative leadership and the executive will ensure the new commission has everything it needs to roll up its sleeves and get to work.

From the archives:

We thought it worthwhile to reprint our reasons for supporting the new joint commission on public ethics:
  • For the first time ever, we will have an ethics overseer that includes both gubernatorial and legislative appointees, and excludes the persons being policed.
  • New commissioners will serve fixed five-year terms, and may only be removed for cause: we hope that this degree of independence, coupled with a broader mandate and penalties for leaks about proceedings, will enable people to have thoughtful deliberations and vote their conscious.
  • Officials will be required to provide unredacted financial information including sources and amounts of income, including the identity of clients for whom they perform state business, even clients of a law practice. And this information will be available, in its entirety, to the public.
  • A new database will identify all firms representing everyone with state business, and since officials must disclose their business partners on their financial disclosure forms, the public will be able to also evaluate these relationships.
  • Lobbyists now will be required to disclose their business relationships, if any, with public officials.
  • A review commission will look at the efficacy of this in 2015, after it has been up and running.

Criticism has been aimed at the make up of the commission: the legislative leaders appoint 8 of 14 commissioners and the Governor appoints the other six. Appointments are party based and will exclude minority parties. In order for an investigation to proceed, the votes of two of the target’s appointees are required in some circumstances. There is a danger that such a large commission will be unwieldy and that the provisions requiring affirmative votes could be exercised like vetoes, as per the commissioner’s appointer, not her conscious.