“Ethics reform” has been a buzz phrase heard in Albany and around the state a lot over the last few years and for good reason. Lately, there have been several high-profile cases of wrongdoing by state officials. However, as is often the case in state politics, what is meant by “ethics reform” depends on who is providing the rhetoric.
The governor, for example, has advocated that ethics reform should include public financing of campaigns. A number of left-leaning advocacy groups, the Speaker of the Assembly, and other New York City politicians have also come out in favor of public financing of campaigns. Interestingly, no one has demonstrated how funding political campaigns with public money would have prevented any of the scandals that have rocked Albany of late. Certainly, it is difficult to argue that public financing of campaigns would prevent sexual harassment, misappropriation of legislative per diems or member items, or straight out bribery — the core charges that have ensnared various state legislators over the past decade.
There was a push by the governor and others to get public financing of campaigns for all state elected offices in this year’s budget. Fortunately, that did not happen. Rather a compromise was reached and public financing was adopted only for the office of the state comptroller. Interestingly, the comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, who has long advocated for public financing and voted for it when he served in the State Assembly, has said he will opt out of the system this election year. Apparently, it is a good system other than when it applies to him.
There also has been hypocrisy from other supporters of public financing such as Jonathan Soros, the son of billionaire NYC financier George Soros, who has spent tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in effort to get public financing enacted in New York state. Apparently, it is non-corrupting when he spends money to influence the legislature but it is corrupting when others do so.
I am of the belief that there are other “ethics reforms” that could be enacted that would be much more effective in fighting public corruption and other misdeeds. In fact, I was happy that some of these measures made it into this year’s state budget. For example, there were provisions in this year’s budget that increased penalties for bribery, and created more serious crimes of government corruption.
The budget also has provision that created a chief enforcement counsel within the State Board of Elections to head a new division of elections law enforcement. The chief enforcement counsel will have the sole authority within the state board to investigate on his or her own initiative, or upon complaints, alleged violations of campaign finance and other statutes governing campaigns, elections, and related procedures. Finally, the budget also establishes a new compliance unit within the Board of Elections to examine campaign-finance statements.
While this is a start, there is more that we can do. Amazingly, in New York, a person who served in office and is convicted of a felony related to his or her official duties (e.g., taking a bribe) can still draw his or her state pension. In fact, according to news reports, in 2011, the state was paying $2.6 million in pensions to former state lawmakers convicted of bribery, corruption, racketeering, mail fraud, and/or burglary. I sponsor common sense legislation that would amend our state constitution to end this ridiculous practice and prevent a crooked politician convicted of a felony from collecting his/her state pension.
In addition, I have drafted and introduced legislation that would create an independent Assembly ethics committee. The current Assembly ethics committee is indirectly controlled by the Speaker of the Assembly and therefore is subject to or, at least, has the appearance of being subject to, political manipulation. My legislation requires that any complaint made against an Assembly member or a staff member would have to be referred to the independent committee. The committee will have the power to investigate the claim or refer it to another appropriate investigative entity such as the District Attorney’s office.
This ethics committee will also be able to impose various penalties or, in certain cases, recommend penalties be imposed by a vote of the full Assembly. The committee would be made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and would be co-chaired by members of both parties. In addition, committee staff would be hired by the co-chairs as opposed to the Assembly Speaker.
The latest scandals in Albany are an embarrassment and unfortunately delegitimize the state legislature as a whole. Voters should demand that Albany be cleaned up and that “ethics reform” include actual reform that directly addresses the scandals that have infected our state government of late.
William (Will) A. Barclay is the Republican representative of the 120th New York Assembly District, which encompasses most of Oswego County, including the cities of Oswego and Fulton, as well as the town of Lysander in Onondaga County and town of Ellisburg in Jefferson County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (315) 598-5185.