New reporting laws for lawmakers
ALBANY, NY — One of the new laws agreed to by Governor Andrew Cuomo and both houses of the state legislature in the run up to the end of the session this month, The Clean Up Albany Act of 2011, will stipulates that beginning in May 2012, lawmakers will be required to report outside income, and this information will be available to the public through the internet.
This will apply to all forms of income earned outside of the state duties of the lawmakers, and will also apply to the many lawyers who are elected officials and who earn income from outside law firms. Additionally, they will have to reveal the names of clients with whom they have direct contact. But the identities of clients without direct contact, such as those who are being served by someone else in the firm, but from whom the lawmaker might also receive a percentage of fees, will not need to be revealed.
The matter raises a series of questions for Senator John Bonacic, who is a lawyer. In an interview posted on his website, he poses the question: “Let’s say [a legislator] makes half a million or a million dollars, being of counsel. The question is what are you doing to earn that money? Is there a question of wrong-doing if any elected official is making a lot of money apart for his legislative duties? Did you work for it? What did you do?”
There are further exceptions to the rule requiring the identity of clients to be revealed. If the legal work is related to something of a personal nature, such as divorce, then the identity is protected.
The act also requires covered state employees to disclose whether their outside clients have business before the state, including any proposed bill or resolution before the legislature, any contracts or grants from the state or any proceeding involving a state agency.
And the act establishes a new database of any individual or firm that appears in a representative capacity before any state governmental entity and requires, for the first time, that state agencies track and report all such appearances to this database.
The act was a high priority for Cuomo, and a release about it occupies a prominent spot on his website, www.governor.ny.gov. He said, "This bill is the tough and aggressive approach we need. It provides for disclosure of outside income by lawmakers, creates a true independent monitor to investigate corruption, and spells out tough, new rules that lobbyists must follow.”
One of those tough new rules is that any lawmaker who commits a felony will forfeit his or her pension. In the past, according to Bonacic, the practice has been for any lawmaker accused of a crime to resign before trial, and thus his pension was preserved. Now that will change, and Bonacic called this the most “meaty” provision in the act.
Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther voted in favor of the reform. She said, “I gladly support this bill. It’s been a long time coming and I believe this groundbreaking legislation will help ensure that both elected and appointed public officials and employees stay accountable to the people they serve.”
The act is generally seen as a positive steps by several good government groups. Russ Haven, executive director of the New York State Public Interest Research Group, said, "These ethics reforms for the first time will open a huge window on the outside work and pay of state lawmakers. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and these disclosures will allow New Yorkers to judge whether a legislator's private job creates a conflict with their responsibilities to the public.