New Yorkers should demand disclosure of lawmakers’ outside income

Most Americans are either too busy or too lazy to pay attention to state politics. They may have some impression of what the president and the Congress are doing, but they know very little about what really goes on in Albany. Obviously, if you don’t know what your elected officials are doing, you can’t hold them responsible. You can’t have true democracy unless people know what’s going on and unless they vote. Most people do not vote, and those who do play an old game called “the odd finger.”

That’s pretty dumb in itself since much of what goes on in our lives is dictated by the rule book in the Legislature. Things like a woman’s reproductive rights or how much tax the localities are permitted to levy or how fast you can travel on state roads are just a few examples. So when it is announced on the news that a senator or assemblyman has been caught with his or her fingers in the cookie jar, voters get very cynical and say, “They’re all like that.” No, they are not. Most of them are far too smart to “steal-steal.” The rules are far too favorable to conducting outside, self-enriching business at the public expense. They engage in what Boss Plunkett once called “honest graft.” For example, they take campaign contributions from people who will get much more back than what they put in. If you don’t believe that people like the real estate barons who are kicking into campaigns will get something back for their cash, you are either incredibly naïve or you don’t know what you’re talking about. Just look at what has happened to the rent control laws in New York City.

Every now and then, the legislators treat us suckers to a self-serving reform effort. To his everlasting credit, immediate past Governor David Paterson vetoed the last such legislative effort. Interestingly, it was actually endorsed by many of the state’s “white hat” or “goo-goo” good government groups that wanted to go back to their boards of directors to show that they had finally gotten something done. It turns out that the big issue was whether or not we, the voters, have a right to see to the penny who is giving legislators outside money. We need to know who is really pulling the strings.

Of course, the biggest beneficiaries of the lax conflict of interest laws in the Legislature are the attorney legislators. We all know how it works. People choose lawyers because they or their partners have clout and can “fix” problems. Just ask anyone who has been in a contested divorce how much it means to have a “connected” lawyer. That’s why so many women seeking a divorce choose a legislator or a legislator’s partner. Remember, these are the same people who often have a lot to say about who will become a judge. So the woman coming to that lawyer-legislator may choose her because of her clout. Divorce is only one such example. Certainly the real estate attorney you choose can also be a connected legislator.

At the very least, we are entitled to know who is hiring the legislator. This fight is now getting close to resolution. The heat is on, and people are finally getting it. So tell me, if you were a lawyer-legislator, would you want people to know who was giving money to you or your partners? Of course you wouldn’t. As we move toward tightening up our laws, this is the number-one issue. In the phony ethics bill that the Legislature keeps coming up with and people like Governor Paterson (and hopefully Governor Cuomo) veto, the legislators insist on keeping lawyer-legislators out of harm’s way.

“Oh, you can’t embarrass a woman who hires me,” one such legislator said to me recently. I noted that with all his perks, he makes at least a hundred grand a year and he has to choose whether to allow people to know where he gets his money and to be a legislator or just to be a lawyer. And don’t give me any malarkey about the job being part-time.

Let every New Yorker know what’s at stake here, and let everyone who is reading this write one letter demanding full disclosure of outside income in a year that we will surely have such an ethics law coming up. Let’s remember that the devil is in the details and that these people are clever — much more clever than we are. OK, you have your homework.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 1/25/11

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