Gov. David Paterson’s secretive process to select Hillary Rodham Clinton’s successor in the U.S. Senate conflicts with his campaign promises to open up government and New York’s top regulator of open government laws says it appears to violate state law.
Just days from announcing his choice, Paterson won’t identify “about 10” people he said are in the running to follow Clinton. He won’t release the blank questionnaire he sent to each of them looking for background information. He won’t turn over the candidates’ completed forms. And the public isn’t getting any idea how the hopefuls feel about broad or regional public issues — or even if public policy is being discussed.
“The process is confidential,” is the stock answer from his office for the appointment to what has been called the world’s most exclusive club.
The list of hopefuls and the questions posed to them in the questionnaire seems to most clearly violate the state’s post-Watergate freedom of information laws designed to make sure government officials are accountable to the public. And at least some of the answers by candidates in their background checks should likely be public, too.
“How could it not be public? It’s a blank form,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, the state agency that regulates enforcement of the good-government laws. Since 1976 Freeman, a lawyer, has been the top state employee who advises government and the public on interpretation of the public officers’ law.
The names of those under consideration — among them Caroline Kennedy, perhaps Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, several members of Congress and other elected officials — should also be disclosed, Freeman said.
“In my mind, the identities of those seeking one of the highest offices in the land would not rise to the level of unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” Freeman told The Associated Press in an interview.
Some case law also would appear to go against Paterson. A court found not even a village board could legally go into a closed-door executive session to discuss filling a vacant seat. Freeman said state law in some ways recognizes less privacy protection for those in public office or seeking public office compared to private citizens.
Cuomo, who as attorney general is the governor’s lawyer, didn’t respond to a question of whether he supported the secretive process. Cuomo has refused to say if he is seeking the Senate seat.
“Their personal privacy does not trump the public’s right to know who their next senator will be,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Horner said the need is particularly acute in light of accusations that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell to the highest bidder his appointment for the vacant Senate seat of Barack Obama.
“So why doesn’t Governor Paterson get the candidates to pledge they won’t raise campaign funds for him, so his appointment is not seen as just in the best of interest of his own political position?” Horner said.
Paterson’s spokesmen wouldn’t respond to that question Monday.
Paterson said Monday that he hasn’t publicly disclosed the information he has received from potential candidates because the request wasn’t “a government action. That was a personal request I made of the candidates. Some of the information was rather private.”
At a news conference, Paterson said the list of candidates is “personal.”
“The law is on his side as far as whether he has to do any of this with transparency,” said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters. “But good government is not on his side here.”
A copy of the questionnaire to applicants, obtained by The New York Times after Paterson’s office refused to release it, asks about finances and job history, but not about policy positions.
“I don’t think I’ve heard any public positions,” Bartoletti said. She noted that most of the hopefuls are in office and therefore have a record for the public to judge. The exception is the perceived front-runner, Caroline Kennedy, who has never held public office and has guarded her political opinions and privacy.
Meanwhile, Kennedy continued her efforts to reach out to political leaders and state and local officials.
While stopping short of a traditional campaign, Kennedy has been courting local power brokers. U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel released a photograph of Kennedy’s Monday meeting with him and state Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz. And on Sunday, she traveled to Brooklyn to meet with black lawmakers.
In 2005, then-Sen. Paterson relied on sarcasm when some of Albany’s notorious secrecy was peeled back after some outrage by himself, voters and good-government groups.
“I’m astounded that I’m here,” said Paterson at his first public budget negotiation that included minority party leaders.
Then, as a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006, reform was central to his platform shared by Eliot Spitzer, whom Paterson would succeed a year later following a prostitution scandal.
“Reform is the biggest joke that the Legislature tries to perpetrate on the public, and the public is not laughing,” Paterson said in 2006.
“This governor ran on a ticket whose major thrust was government reform and that’s what people thought they would get when they elected that team,” Bartoletti said. “I think everybody is watching.”