Greater transparency needed in state government

DECEMBER 20, 2009
    Former Sen. Joseph Bruno’s trial in Albany has shined a light on political activities in New York State government. The Federal District Court found him guilty of concealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from a businessman who desired and sought help from the State Legislature.
    The jury found Bruno guilty of two federal counts of mail fraud, not guilty on five counts, and it could not reach a verdict on another count. He is scheduled to be sentenced March 31 and could face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each felony.
    The trial and verdict have impacted on the entire governmental process involving legislators, lobbyists, campaign contributors and others. But there are more than a few people who believe that some of the revelations might embarrass legislators and lead to changes in the area of reform.
    “If he [Bruno] is guilty,” a prominent lobbyist recently said, “then the whole system is guilty.”
    That is the truest statement that could be made. Albany’s culture of secrecy and entitlements breeds a sense of invincibility that is under the radar of public scrutiny. Most legislators come to Albany without realizing the negative culture that exists, and unfortunately some allow themselves to be remade by this destructive system.
    The maximum amount of money that individuals can contribute to New York State senatorial campaigns is $15,500, one of the highest in the nation. This does not include “housekeeping accounts” to political parties. One organization recently contributed more than $300,000 in a six-month period to a state political party while the Legislature was considering the budget with the possibility of budget cuts impacting on this group. The overall amount of money is too high and should be definitely limited.
    So what can be done? Recently two state senators, one of whom is a lawyer, began quietly circulating a bill to improve the state ethics laws. The Public Integrity Commission as it now exists would be abolished and instead there would be three new commissions established for the executive branch, the Legislature and the lobbying industry. This was immediately criticized by the head of the Public Integrity Commission as weakening the overall supervision. He was also critical of an exemption from disclosure requirements for one professional group, lawyers, in the bill. Why?
    The argument that lawyers should be exempt from disclosure because of attorney/client confidentiality can even exacerbate problems. Indeed some legislators become consultants because they know of the additional income that their colleagues who are lawyers actually make. There are at least 20 lawyers among the 62 members of the State Senate, which represents approximately one-third of the members. Can you imagine an ethics law that excludes more than one-third of the people who should be covered?
    But the figure is probably much higher because lobbying is frequently carried out by law firms. Any members of the Legislature could be hired as consultants to law firms and be bound by attorney/client confidentiality and not have to disclose the clients they serve. Therefore, the possibility exists that many more members of the Senate would be exempt from the disclosure law.
    It is inexplicable why lawyers and their employees would be exempt while other people such as psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists are not exempt even though they have similar client/patient concerns. The important issue is that there are ways of having a strong ethics law that applies to all legislators without destroying the importance of confidentiality, not only in the legal field, but other professions as well.
    Why is the public prevented from knowing if the clients of these politician lawyers in any way impact on state legislation? Nothing must be kept secret. All must become transparent. The Bruno trial serves as a catalyst to change the unknown and sometimes corrupt practices that exist. But it must apply to all legislators. It cannot exempt a class of people because of a particular profession because that would defeat the goals it ostensibly seeks.
    Now, what did the former Senate majority leader and his associates actually do? Federal prosecutors had charged him, among other things, with using his state power and influence to enrich himself over a dozen years. He was also accused of using his posh official political offices in the state capitol where he invited his lobbyist/consultant friends to discuss his private business dealings. These private activities had nothing to do with his official Senate duties. Furthermore, prosecutors said, he deftly concealed most of these activities from the public, while using some of his taxpayer-funded assistants to look over his private business dealings and also used them to provide him with legal advice on these private dealings, thus creating a potential conflict of interest.
    The financial disclosure forms that all legislators now submit are inadequate in terms of the problems that they can make public. They actually reveal very little of any importance. The public deserves greater transparency that can give them more information relating to politicians’ private business dealings, especially since the State Legislature is a part-time job and allows its members to have other jobs that supposedly don’t impact on or influence their official responsibilities.
    Seymour P. Lachman is a former state senator and now is director of the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He is the co-author of “Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power and Betrayal in an American Statehouse.”