Op-ed column: Legislators need a clear, tough ethics bill with high standards

This past January, New York legislators overwhelmingly passed an ethics reform bill ostensibly desig

This past January, New York legislators overwhelmingly passed an ethics reform bill ostensibly designed to keep them honest. Gov. Paterson vetoed it days later, saying it doesn’t go far enough. Although the bill passed the Senate and Assembly collectively by a vote of 196-3, the legislators were unable to override the governor’s veto. Maybe they had a change of heart.

The bill consists of 56 pages of run-on sentences, difficult to follow because it is superimposed on another ethics bill produced in 1987. You may be asking why a second bill was needed. Apparently, in the preceding two decades our legislators were busy identifying loopholes and weaknesses in the original bill, with some in fact exploiting same.

One glaring weakness involved the Legislative Ethics Commission, the “watchdog” agency established to monitor the ethical behavior of members of the state Senate and Assembly. Incredibly, the commision had never brought a single significant investigation against any legislator. The new bill proposed to fix that deficiency by creating several more commissions. Perhaps Gov. Paterson was not convinced that more of the same would help.

There are laws

One has to wonder why an ethics bill is necessary at all. We have laws that punish theft. A business owner finding that his purchasing manager was getting kickbacks from a vendor, or awarding purchase contracts in return for employment for a family member, would instantly fire him for cause. Criminal charges could be brought by the owner if the monetary loss was large enough.

But the bill our legislators created for themselves undercuts laws against theft and actually gives cover for their misdeeds. It puts them in charge of investigating and identifying dishonest behavior and doling out punishment. If a legislator is caught “red-handed,” he/she simply resigns and the record of misconduct is sealed. But we know the Legislative Ethics Commission has “caught” no one in two decades, despite the likes of Joseph Bruno and Anthony Seminerio being on the scene during their tenure. So this bill was doomed to impotence from the start.

Assembly leader Sheldon Silver, along with 11 other legislators, sponsored the bill (identified as A9544). A search of the word “ethics” on the state Senate Web site produces 35 bills, 16 of which deal with the ethical behavior of legislators. The Legislature has certainly spent a lot of time and energy on this subject despite the simplicity of the concept; i.e., to work exclusively for the overall good of the people of New York and never for personal gain at their expense.

Another try

So, one last ethics bill may be in order, one that holds legislators to a higher standard than ordinary citizens, one that imposes greater penalties for misdeeds than the law can impose on ordinary citizens, and one that removes the “gray area” that allows the dishonest among them to operate. Credit to David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, for a version of this idea found in his book “Free Lunch.”

The bill would require each legislator to sign a statement swearing that their every action will be solely for the benefit of the people of New York state. They would need to sell stock they own in companies that deal with the state, and divest themselves of any relationships that could place them in a position of conflict. In short, they would need to adjust their personal situation to eliminate any possible conflict of interest.

Secondly, each legislator must agree to a minimum jail sentence for an ethical lapse, and to waive their right of appeal. In addition, if they are found to have violated their oath, they would forfeit their right to a pension and all other benefits afforded a legislator in good standing.

Finally, the bill would make compliance “black and white” by forbidding the acceptance of any amount of money or any item from any source. Gifts to family members would be considered the same as if given to the legislator. Employment or other benefits after one’s tenure as a public servant would also be prohibited if they originate with an organization that deals with the state.

The bill would spell out the terms in simple, clear language, and be no more than two pages in length (a limit on bills suggested by legislativeaccountability.org, a Web site filled with many good ideas).

No problem

As long as their intention is to do the work of the people rather than use their position for personal gain, honest legislators should have no problem agreeing to and signing such an ethics bill. Indeed, our legislators should embrace the opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to high ethical behavior, while setting a standard for other states and the federal government to follow.

Only then can they begin the job of making New York government something other than the most dysfunctional in the nation.

Larry Jordan lives in Amsterdam. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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