Albany was rocked by a political earthquake last week with the arrest of Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver. The arrest stemmed from an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office and alleged the Speaker’s involvement in a vast kickback and corruption enterprise that spanned many years. The Speaker denies the U.S. Attorney’s allegations and maintains his innocence.
And in America, there is a presumption of innocence for anyone charged with a crime.
But the allegations raised a serious public policy question: Should New York State legislators be allowed to have outside jobs?
This is not the first time the question has come up. There have been far too many instances of alleged corruption, indictments and convictions of New York lawmakers stemming from their moonlighting.
In all 50 states, legislators are considered part-time and thus can have outside occupations, usually with some restrictions. With a few exceptions, the states require disclosure of outside income – in some cases a very detailed reporting – and recusal on votes if the issue presents a conflict of interest. New York has such a system.
On the other hand, the U.S. Congress’s House of Representatives does place limits on the outside income of its members. The House members are considered full-time and have a cap on the amount of outside income that they can receive and prohibits some professional activities (such as affiliation with a law firm). Members of the New York State executive branch also are considered full-time and have restrictions on their ability to receive outside income; usually they have to obtain permission from the state’s ethics watchdog.
The U.S. Attorney’s complaint filed against the Speaker alleges two major schemes, both involving outside law firms through which the Speaker used the power of his public office to personally enrich himself. As a result, the debate over lawmakers’ outside income has moved front and center in Albany.
As the US Attorney Preet Bharara stated, “Politicians are supposed to be on the people's payroll, not on secret retainer to wealthy special interests they do favors for. "
What should be done? Here are two steps lawmakers should take right away:
- To start with, the governor and lawmakers should place meaningful restrictions on outside income. It makes sense to work off of the rules in place in Washington DC. Those rules place a maximum amount of outside income that a lawmaker can receive (about $27,000) as well as prohibitions on certain types of professional work – such as legal. In addition, more robust disclosure requirements for any allowed outside income.
- Ultimately, the state’s system of ethics will have to be monitored. New York has two ethics watchdogs: the Joint Commission on Public Ethics – which regulates the executive branch, the lobbying industry and is charged with investigating complaints against the legislative branch. Secondly, there is the Legislative Ethics Commission, which is responsible for enforcing the ethics code of the legislative branch. Both entities are widely viewed as fatally flawed due to a fundamental lack of independence from the executive and legislative branches, as well as the legal restrictions on those agencies operating openly.
Reformers are urging a sweeping overhaul, by merging the Legislative Ethics Commission into JCOPE. With the new restructured JCOPE, including a new board, a prohibition on executive or legislative staff becoming JCOPE staff, JCOPE compliance with Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws, and a strict requirement that board members are sworn to protect the interests of the public – not the interests of their appointing authorities.
Of course, Albany’s problems are not solely ones resulting from those gaming the system to their own advantage. The “pay-to-play” culture must be reformed too. But Albany needs to show New Yorkers that it is a national leader in ethics, not a national punch-line.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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