New York’s new corruption-fighting commission is asking all state lawmakers to provide never-before-required details about their outside work — including a list of law clients — prompting the Legislature to lawyer up for a possible challenge to the panel’s authority.
The request by the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption comes on the heels of a sordid spring of a half-dozen federal indictments against lawmakers and questions about whether lucrative outside employment could create conflicts of interest.
According to a letter sent late last month and obtained by The Associated Press, all lawmakers must provide data for outside employment that paid over $20,000 in 2012, a description of what work the lawmaker performed, how the wage or salary was determined, and — critical for the many attorneys in the Legislature — “a list of your clients in any civil matters or in any publicly filed criminal matters.”
The commission’s deadline is Thursday. If lawmakers don’t comply, the commission could subpoena people and records.
The letter goes well beyond what current ethics laws require. The part-time lawmakers, who are paid $79,500, are currently asked only to check off a salary range for any other employment. They aren’t required to identify clients that could reveal conflicts of interests, something lawmakers have blocked for years, arguing their clients’ identities were protected under attorney-client privilege.
Recent ethics disclosures, for example, show Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos makes as much as $250,000 a year in a law firm and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver makes up to $450,000 in another.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo created the commission two months ago to investigate corruption in state government, with power under New York’s 1907 Moreland Act to interview witnesses, hold hearings and seize evidence.
But under that law, such a commission can only investigate executive branch agencies, not the Legislature.
The Assembly’s Democratic majority hired a lawyer to advise the chamber, raising the first legal concerns about the commission’s authority to investigate the Legislature.
A letter sent to Assembly members and obtained by the AP said only executive agencies are to be investigated by Moreland commissions and an outside attorney was hired “to the extent the commission’s work might bring it in contact with the Legislature.”
It says the Assembly will respond to “legitimate inquiries from the commission while preserving proper respect for the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers.”
The memo states the Senate “will retain counsel as well.” But Senate Republican spokesman Scott Reif said the Senate hasn’t.
Neither Reif nor Assembly majority spokesman Michael Whyland would comment on any plans to challenge the commission’s authority. The commission’s executive director, Regina Calcaterra, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The lawmakers’ concern is based in part on a mostly overlooked provision of Cuomo’s executive order that requires the independent commission to refer cases to the state police superintendent, who is appointed by Cuomo.
“Ultimately, the referral decision is going to be made by the state police,” said commission Co-Chairwoman Kathleen Rice, the Nassau County district attorney who is a co-chairwoman of the commission, in a recent interview.
Richard Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman who is now a senior fellow at New York University’s graduate school of public service, said: “There is an apparent legal inconsistency between the broad granting of authority to someone appointed as a deputy attorney general, which is necessary to make this function, and the attempt to make the state police the gatekeeper, which makes little sense.”
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said the state police role is only a procedural issue because under law the attorney general can’t act on these issues without a referral from the executive branch.
The role for state police has concerned lawmakers since the administration of Gov. Eliot Spitzer was hit with ethics charges over its control of state police in the 2007 scandal known as “troopergate.” The Senate Republican leader at the time, Joseph Bruno, had accused Spitzer’s aides of using state police for political surveillance in the scandal investigated by Cuomo, who was then attorney general.