New York County Lawyers Association Statement on Proposed Legislative Ethics Reforms
The New York County Lawyers Association (NYCLA) strongly supports ethics reform for the New York State Legislature. We applaud Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for issuing his comprehensive ethics reform package and we strongly support it in principle. NYCLA urges the Legislature to consider the proposed reforms this session.
For many decades, there have been calls for ethics reform for New York legislators. In 1954, Governor Thomas Dewey, in his annual message to the Legislature, urged dramatic and sweeping ethics reform. As Governor Dewey stated 61 years ago, “This problem of ethical standards is not the simple issue of bribery and corruption on which there is no difference of opinion; it involves a whole range of borderline behavior, questions of propriety, and the question of conflict of interests.” Yet, scandals have continued to the present. Since 2000, at least 28 New York lawmakers have left office because of criminal or ethical issues.
There also are significant problems in New York’s campaign finance laws. New York has some of the highest contribution limits of any state. In addition, there are numerous loopholes—including allowing unrestricted contributions to political party accounts and a deeply flawed method of accounting for contributions from LLCs.
Furthermore, conflicts of interest permeate because of our legislators’ part-time status. Legislators are permitted to keep outside employment, and the interests of their employers inevitably are impacted by proposed legislation, thereby establishing a breeding ground for real and perceived influence-peddling. Also, so-called per diems – where legislators are reimbursed for days spent in Albany – are subject to abuse.
Additionally, since legislators currently serve two-year terms, there is a constant cycle of fundraising and campaigns, which creates an atmosphere conducive to abuse.
Over the years, efforts have been made to address these and other issues. Yet, New York’s Legislature has effectively resisted most meaningful ethics reforms. Any reforms have been modest, reactive in nature and, at best, incremental.
Summary of Proposed Reforms
In response to recent events, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has proposed a comprehensive package of reforms through amendments to New York’s Penal Law, Executive Law, Retirement and Social Security Law, Legislative Law, part E of chapter 60 of the Laws of 2015 establishing a Commission on Legislative, Judicial and Executive Compensation, Election Law, Tax Law, and Legislative Law, as well as New York’s Constitution. Attorney General Schneiderman’s proposals would:
create a new crime for undisclosed self-dealing;
expand criminal liability for bribery;
strengthen pension forfeiture provisions for those public officials convicted of crimes; and
establish jurisdiction for the Attorney General’s office to investigate and prosecute public corruption.
To address weaknesses and loopholes in New York’s campaign finance system, the proposed legislation:
sharply limits campaign contributions from individuals doing business with the state;
sharply limits contributions and fundraising by lobbyists for public officials, eliminates the so-called “LLC loophole”;
eliminates party housekeeping accounts and the unlimited contributions they are currently allowed to receive;
institutes categorical bans on use of campaign funds for personal clothing or tuition;
substantially lowers campaign contribution limits; and
establishes a new public finance system administered by the Board of Elections.
To address real and perceived conflicts of interest in our Legislature, and to treat our legislators as professionals, the proposed legislation would:
ban income from outside employment;
ban receipt of per diems; and
increase legislative salaries.
The final piece of Attorney General Schneiderman’s comprehensive and coordinated package of ethics reform addresses the constant cycle of fundraising and campaigns. Arguing that this undermines sound government, the Attorney General proposes an amendment to the New York State Constitution which would increase the length of term of office for members of the New York State Legislature from two years to four years.
NYCLA applauds Attorney General Schneiderman for his bold, coordinated, and common sense plan for ethics reform, which we strongly support in principle. Extensive reforms of this nature are long overdue.
Dated: June 4, 2015