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Wednesday, March 18, 2015
By +Scott Leffler

Gov. Andrew Cuomo
ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and fellow Democrat, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, today outlined an agreement on reforms to New York State’s ethics laws and rules.

The two-party agreement offers new disclosure requirements for public officials, stiff financial repercussions for officials convicted of wrongdoing, per diem reform, campaign fund use reform, and greater campaign finance disclosure.

Left out of the deal, however, was the State Senate. Without their tacit approval, any deal between Cuomo and Heastie is moot.

Nonetheless, the agreeing parties celebrated their agreement at a morning press conference.

“I said that real ethics reform was essential to a complete budget this year and I applaud Speaker Heastie and the Assembly for their leadership in supporting the highest ethical standards New York has ever established," Gov. Cuomo said. "This new level of disclosure and transparency will go a long way towards restoring the public trust. The more trust, the more credibility.”

Speaker Heastie said, "When I assumed the leadership of the New York State Assembly, I assured the voters of this state that their government is working for them. I assured them that by whatever means necessary, we would do everything in our power to regain their trust and to bring true reform and accountability into these halls. Today, the Assembly Majority took a monumental step toward fulfilling that promise."

The agreement between the Governor and the Assembly covers the following five essential points that the Governor previously outlined as his priorities for the budget:

1. New Disclosure Requirements

Public officials will be required to disclose all outside earned income they receive, from whom they receive it, the actual services performed to receive the income, and whether there is any connection to the state government or the office that they hold or their public duties. Specifically:

  • All public officials must disclose the nature of each source of outside compensation in excess of $1,000. 
  • No legislator, legislative employee or state officer may receive any kind of compensation, directly or indirectly, in connection with a pending bill or resolution. 
  • All public officials who personally provide services whether they work individually or as a member or employee of a business or firm, such as lawyers and real estate brokers, and receives compensation from a client/customer in excess of $5,000 must disclose the name of the client/customer, the services rendered, the amount of compensation and whether the services were related to governmental action. Certain sensitive activities will be exempted from client disclosure such as child custody cases, preparation of wills, matrimonial proceedings, cases involving minors, bankruptcies and criminal proceedings and residential home closings.

The agreement amends the law to empower prosecutors to prosecute the filing of fraudulent financial disclosure statements without the approval of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. It would also expand the Lobbying Law to cover lobbying of municipalities that have a population of 5,000 or more – current law is set at municipalities with populations of 50,000 or more.

2. Pension Forfeiture 

Public officials who are convicted of public corruption should not have taxpayers pay for their retirement. The agreement will apply New York’s pension forfeiture law to all public officials who are convicted of public corruption, including those who entered the retirement system before enactment of the pension forfeiture law in 2011. The law allows a judge to protect an innocent spouse and goes into effect after a second passage of a constitutional amendment by the legislature and voter approval in 2017.

3. Per Diem Reform

The agreement will immediately reform per diems by establishing a new set of verification requirements including:

  • To ensure an official is where they claim to be, the legislature will install an electronic system that verifies personal attendance of legislators at an official event.
  • The Speaker will develop and implement policies to verify attendance at official events and establish standards and limits for reimbursable events.
  • Reimbursements will be governed by federal regulations.
  • Legislature will create a publicly accessible website showing members’ reimbursement and travel.

4. Prohibition of Personal Use of Campaign Funds

The agreement also would bar using campaign contributions for personal use. Such personal use will be defined as expenditures that are exclusively for personal benefit of the candidate or any other individual, not in connection with a political campaign or holding of a public office or party position. The law will include an illustrative list of prohibited uses including using campaign contributions for expenses unrelated to a campaign or the holding of public office such as residential home purchases, mortgage payments, rent, clothing, tuition payments, salaries for individuals not performing campaign work, admissions to sporting events, fines and penalties and dues for country clubs and health clubs.

5. Campaign Finance Disclosure

The agreement will further expand the requirement for disclosing independent expenditures to include independent expenditures on communications made within 60 days before a general, or special election, and 30 days before a primary election that reference a clearly identified client. The agreement also turns over enforcement of independent expenditures rules the new chief enforcement counsel.

Calls to Gov. Cuomo's office as well as State Sen. Rob Ortt concerning the nature of the State Senate's involvement in the ethics reform agreement were not immediately returned.

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