Assemblyman Lavine: Assembly Passes Sweeping Ethics Reform Agreement

Legislation greatly increases transparency and accountability
June 17, 2011

Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) announced the Assembly passed legislation supported by the governor and Senate that will institute historic, wide-ranging reform that cracks down on unethical behavior (A.8301).

“This groundbreaking legislation will help ensure that both elected and appointed public officials and employees stay accountable to the people they serve,” Assemblyman Lavine said. “Unfortunately, the actions of some have given state government a bad name. This measure includes tough new monitoring and enforcement tools that will help restore faith in state government.”

Strengthening ethics oversight

The Assembly legislation establishes an independent Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) with broad powers to investigate wrongdoing in the legislative and executive branches; ensure compliance with their financial disclosure requirements; and oversee lobbyists while holding them to higher disclosure standards.

“This new ethics commission will have true independence and robust powers to weed out any corruption,” Assemblyman Lavine said. “It will strengthen accountability in state government and ensure that those who violate the public’s trust will be dealt with swiftly and appropriately.”

The bipartisan JCOPE will consist of 14 members:

  • six appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor, with three of those members belonging to a major political party that is not that of the governor;
  • three by the Speaker of the Assembly;
  • three by the Temporary President of the Senate;
  • one by the Assembly Minority Leader; and
  • one by the Senate Minority Leader.

Members will serve five-year terms and cannot have been a lobbyist, member of the Legislature, statewide elected official, agency commissioner or political party chairman during the previous three years. In a powerful step toward cleaning up state government, JCOPE will refer potential violations of state or federal law to the appropriate law enforcement authority.

To ensure proper separation of powers, JCOPE will investigate possible violations of law by legislators and legislative employees, and must issue those findings to the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC), which can enforce penalties. JCOPE reports to the LEC will have to be made public in a tight timeframe to ensure that matters are dealt with swiftly and openly.

“Maintaining two separate ethics watchdogs ensures that no one branch of government has undue influence and power over another,” Assemblyman Lavine said. “At the same time, tough new standards will be enforced to ensure that any violations of the law in the legislative branch are properly dealt with.”

Enhanced disclosure of all income and clients

The new legislation also requires public officials with outside employment to disclose the names of clients with business before the state; currently, there is no requirement to list these clients. In addition, public officials will now have to publicly disclose a broader range of income categories, and the information will not be redacted.

“It makes sense for lawmakers to reveal their client list in situations where it could potentially be a conflict of interest,” Assemblyman Lavine said. “The public deserves to know who is hiring their legislators and how much legislators are being paid.”

The Assembly legislation:

  • requires that public officials disclose the name of any clients or customers providing compensation of $10,000 or more who are lobbyists, persons receiving contracts, grants or member items from the state or persons or entities that have a matter before a state agency;
  • requires disclosure of such clients when referred by a public official to his or her firm;
  • requires the posting of financial disclosure forms on JCOPE’s website; and
  • removes provisions in current law that make income and asset categories of value confidential.

Pension forfeiture for convicted felons

The Assembly’s ethics reform legislation strips pension benefits from public officials who violate the public’s trust. For the first time, public officials convicted of a felony – including statewide and local elected officials, legislators, judges and employees of the executive, legislative and judicial branches – all face the loss of their pensions.

“It’s unconscionable that under current state law, taxpayers see their hard-earned money spent on those convicted of a felony or on someone who violated their trust,” Assemblyman Lavine said. “Allowing for the removal of pension benefits for public officials who abuse their power is a common-sense measure that corrects a grave injustice.”

Specifically, the legislation allows courts to reduce or remove the pension of a public official convicted of a felony directly related to that official’s public office, upon application by the local district attorney or attorney general. Factors such as the severity of the crime; monetary loss suffered by the state or locality; and needs of dependent children, spouses and domestic partners would be taken into consideration during the court’s deliberation.

Further efforts to reform ethics in state government

The far-reaching ethics reform legislation also:

  • requires lobbyists and clients of lobbyists to disclose the name, compensation and subject of transactions with any statewide public official, legislator, state employee, state officer or legislative employee who has a “reportable business relationship” with them;
  • requires the state Board of Elections to clarify the requirement under existing law regarding independent expenditures that expressly identify a political candidate or ballot proposal; and
  • increases the penalty for failure to file a campaign statement required by election law from $500 to $1,000 and creates a new $10,000 penalty for failing to file three or more statements throughout the course of an election cycle.

“This measure builds on ethics reforms of the past and will help restore trust in state government,” Assemblyman Lavine said. “This agreement marks a historic day in Albany. Transparency and accountability should be, and are, the pillars of good government.”