This is the moment to act on ethics reform

When people get elected to public office, some, but not all of them fall into the inevitable trap of converting their public office into personal wealth or power. It’s part of human nature. Just look at the indictment of former Senator Pedro Espada for all kinds of allegedly shady dealings. Then there was Joe Bruno, the former Senate majority leader who allegedly sold a semi-worthless nag to a guy who testified that when he bought the horse, he was paying the senator back for other services. The last big thing was the federal indictment of state Senator Carl Kruger who also allegedly crossed the line. These are potential criminal matters but we know that every day, some office holders are trying to figure out what they can get for themselves or their families legally. Frankly, folks, whatever these people want to do that is within the law is fine with me with one important proviso, and that is that the people who are voting for them are given the essential information about how much money they are making one the outside and who is giving it to them. At that point, we will be able to understand who is in a position to influence them, and intelligent voters can make up their minds.

A lot of people look at the lawyers in the Legislature to make this point. You would have to live in Never Never Land to believe, for example, that all the people who go to a legislator for legal representation or “consulting” are going there because he or she is the best lawyer in the world. Many people go to attorney-legislators because they believe that they can get more bang for their buck. They may get the legal work done and they also may, as Michael Corleone might have said, “… ask for some service in the future.” Even if the legislator is ethically or politically forbidden from doing the actual work, there’s always a partner who can do it. Somehow, they can get some of the vigorish when the profits are being distributed. In fact, the big thing now for some of these folks is NOT to be a partner in the law firm they are working for but to be “of counsel,” meaning that they just get paid an annual salary. That’s why we need to know exactly how much that annual salary is and who the specific clients may be. We need to know what they are doing to earn the money. Hey, you can always choose to be a full-time lawyer and forget about being a legislator.

Various attempts to dodge full disclosure include things like asking legislators to list outside sources of income rather than making them report to the penny how much they are making. You know, stuff like, “Tell us how much you are making between a hundred and two hundred thousand dollars.” Nope, just give us the facts. Just tell us how much and from whom you are getting it. Stop playing games. The people aren’t dumb. You can’t fool them.

Everyone knows that this is the real show. The public is infuriated. The governor says he wants a proper ethics bill. The speaker, Sheldon Silver, told me that his house has already moved and that everyone is waiting on the present Senate majority leader, Dean Skelos. We all want to know just what is in the proposed ethics deal between Silver and the governor. Will it be the same old phony business that is big enough to drive a truck through? Are we talking about the kind of bill that was correctly vetoed by Governor Paterson because it was too loosey goosey and just allowed for a lot more business as usual? Will it allow the Legislature to set up the same old self-serving Ethics Commission to police itself, coming in with blazing trumpets and huge fanfare but never to be heard from again? Why not one ethics operation that polices everyone? If it’s just another phony operation, I say, “Forget it Jack. Who do you think you’re fooling?”

These folks have been playing the same tired game for years. They say, “Look we passed an ethics bill; it may not be everything, but it’s a first step.” Garbage. There are some good government lobbyists who will endorse a bad bill and then go back to their employers boasting, “Look what we accomplished!” I truly believe that if a good ethics bill passes, the public interest will be served and government in New York state will be cleaned up. This is the moment to act. The cynic in me says it will never happen. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 4/11/11

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