May 3, 2013 —
The Sullivan County legislators have come to an agreement about the make-up of a proposed new ethics law that will cover county employees, officials and members of various boards appointed by the legislature.
The most important change is that the new Sullivan County Board of Ethics, which will be appointed by the legislature, will be able to independently initiate investigations, and will be able to compel witnesses to produce documentation and other evidence.
Under the current ethics procedures, before the ethics board could act, a three-member panel of legislators must first determine whether any given complaint had merit.
The county has been without a functioning board of ethics since 2011, when three members of the five-member board tendered their resignations in the wake of an incident involving then-lawmakers Leni Binder and Jodi Goodman. Goodman and Binder had been accused of an ethics violation by accepting box seats for performances at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which may have had a value of more than $75.
At a meeting at the government center on May 2, legislator Gene Benson attempted to have language included in the law that would prohibit elected county officials from serving on certain boards, and he also wanted to prevent elected officials who were lawyers, accountants and lobbyists from representing any entity that receives county funding.
Lawmaker Jonathan Rouis said such restrictions would be illegal, and doubt about the legality of the provisions was also expressed by county attorney Sam Yasgur and by senior assistant county attorney Cheryl McCausland. They also said the conflicts of interest were covered significantly in the new law, which, for instance, prohibits legislators from voting on any contract in which the legislator has any interests; “interest” is defined as a “direct or indirect financial or material benefit accruing to the county official, his or her relative or dependent, whether as a result of a contract with the county or otherwise.”
Ultimately, the consensus was the language proposed by Benson would not be included.
However, a provision proposed by legislator Cora Edwards, which specifically made it an ethics violation for any county employee or official to use coercion or threats to “induce people to change county policy for the sake of personal gain,” was included.
It was noted that state law already contains prohibition against such behavior, but it was also noted that it is the sole discretion of the district attorney to decide whether state law has been violated and whether or not to prosecute in any specific instance. If the language were included in the law, the new board of ethics could take action in response to a complaint if the district attorney did not.
The consensus of the legislators was that the county attorney’s office would re-work the language and it would be included in the law.
There will be a public hearing on the matter on May 16 at 1:30 p.m. at the government center.