State leaders announce sweeping ethics reform

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders today announced a proposed overhaul of ethics enforc

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders today announced a proposed overhaul of ethics enforcement in New York government forced by an unprecedented string of corruption cases.

The Clean Up Albany Act of 2011 would create what lawmakers call an independent commission with power to enforce ethics and other laws governing lawmakers, the executive branch and lobbying, the governor and lawmakers said in a news release. The governor would appoint six members to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics; eight others would be appointed by legislative leaders.

Any sanctions against a lawmaker, however, would be decided by the Legislative Ethics Commission, which has been criticized for lack of action during the years of scandal. The new ethics commission could, however, refer a criminal case directly to a local, state or federal prosecutor.

In addition, the bill would not apply retroactively. If passed within the next two weeks as expected, the measure would not take effect for 30 to 60 days. The new board wouldn’t be active for a couple of months.

In a measure long resisted in the Legislature, lawmakers would reveal their outside income, along with names of their clients or customers and any business they have before the state to identify any conflicts of interest.

The measure would also require legislators — many of whom, including the leaders of the Senate and Assembly, are lawyers — to disclose if they bring in new clients.

Agreements in past years have fallen apart over the wording of bills, but Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto insisted that there is agreement on the details of the proposed legislation. No bill will be finished or released until early next week, however, Vlasto said.

Cuomo, Skelos and Silver won’t answer questions about the agreement until a Monday news conference.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos called it a “historic ethics reform agreement.”

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said it will “strengthen our citizens’ faith in their government and hold accountable those who betray the public trust.”

“This bill is the tough and aggressive approach we need,” Cuomo said in his prepared statement. “Government does not work without the trust of the people — and this ethics overhaul is an important step to restoring that trust.”

The latest change would replace the current Commission on Public Integrity, created in 2007 under then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who later left office in a call girl scandal.

The latest proposal also shares some concerns that led to almost immediate criticism of the 2007 ethics reform.

The proposed board would be even larger than the current 13-member Public Integrity Commission, which was created that year and was widely criticized as unwieldy and prone to gridlock. The new board, however, would also monitor the legislative branch.

Any action against a lawmaker would have to be approved by at least two board members appointed by that lawmaker’s party, according to the news release. Those board members would have to vote to start an investigation and to approve a conclusion.

Good-government groups praised the measure.

Russ Haven of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which was critical of the 2007 ethics changes, said Friday’s agreement “will open a huge window on the outside work and pay of state lawmakers.”

“Today’s announcement on a far-reaching ethics deal is welcomed and significant,” said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union.

Since 2007, Spitzer and then-Comptroller Alan Hevesi resigned in disgrace, former Gov. David Paterson paid a fine to settle an ethics charge, former Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno was convicted of federal corruption charges and former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada Jr. was accused of corruption charges. In addition, several other lawmakers have been investigated and charged in state and federal probes.

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