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Governor proposes 10-point plan for ethics reforms in state government

Posted 11 January 2017 at 4:21 pm

Press Release, Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced a 10-point proposal to advance strong ethics and good government reforms to rebuild the public’s trust and restore confidence in New York’s elected representatives. The comprehensive package of reforms includes:

• Advancing a constitutional amendment limiting outside income and creating a full-time legislature;

• Advancing a constitutional amendment imposing term limits for elected officials;

• Requiring members of the Legislature to obtain an advisory opinion before earning outside income;

• Advancing legislation to close the “LLC Loophole;”

• Instituting Public Financing and enacting a number of other campaign finance reforms;

• Subjecting local elected officials to financial disclosure requirements;

• Promoting Increased Transparency Through Comprehensive Reforms to the State Freedom of Information Law;

• Expanding the State Inspector General’s authority to SUNY and CUNY not-for-profits;

• Creating new Inspectors General for the Port Authority and the State Education Department; and

• Ensuring greater oversight of the state’s procurement process.

“State government must do more to restore the public trust because as public servants we earn the trust of the people we serve. Unfortunately, in Albany there have been a series of breaches of that trust,” Governor Cuomo said. “We must take action to show the people of this state that we get it, and that when someone does something wrong, they are punished to the full extent of the law and we have a system that is going to catch them. We have been doing historic work at the state level – the government is doing more than ever before – but imagine what we could do if we had the complete confidence of the people. If we had that confidence, there is nothing we couldn’t do – and I am not going to stop until I get there.”

Since entering office, Governor Cuomo has fought aggressively for comprehensive ethics reform beginning with the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011 which increased transparency and accountability throughout state government. This relentless effort continued last year with the Governor’s historic agreement with the State Legislature to further advance critical election, lobbying, and enforcement reforms — including first-in-the-nation legislation to curb the power of independent expenditures and end coordination in political campaigns unleashed by the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission.

This year, the Governor is working to build upon this track record even further through a comprehensive ethics package that addresses a number of fundamental issues that have enabled corrupt behavior to persist in New York State government. These reforms include:

Advancing a Constitutional Amendment Limiting Outside Income

The Legislature’s part-time structure allows professionals from a variety of backgrounds and experiences to serve the public. Yet concerns have been raised about potential conflicts of interests that may arise from income legislators derive from other employment. To strike the right balance between public service and private ventures, the Governor is proposing a constitutional amendment to be put before the voters that would limit outside income for legislators to 15 percent of their base salary. This 15 percent limit is the same limit our federal government places on federal legislators’ outside income.

Advancing a Constitutional Amendment Imposing Term Limits for Elected Officials

Current term limits require members of the Legislature to seek re-election every two years, yet there are no limits on the number of terms they may seek. Governor Cuomo is proposing a constitutional amendment to create four-year legislative terms for members of the Senate and the Assembly. The proposed constitutional amendment would also impose eight-year term limits for new members, and impose term limits for statewide officials.

Requiring Members of the Legislature to Obtain an Advisory Opinion Before Earning Outside Income

Currently, legislators may earn income from private ventures without being required to obtain any analysis or approval regarding whether that income presents conflicts of interest with their duties to the public. The executive branch, in contrast, is required to submit requests for approvals to a conflict check analysis in order to head off ethical issues. Because legislators do not have to seek an opinion of outside income from the legislative ethics commission, and the commission does not have to issue any such opinion, legislators may receive little to no guidance in thinking through inherent conflicts.

As such, the Governor is proposing legislation which would require all legislators to seek an advisory opinion from the legislative ethics commission before earning outside income. To further support in their deliberations and discussions regarding outside income and conflicts of interest, as well as reinforce the public’s trust in the process, a designee from the Office of Court Administration would serve on the commission. By examining compensation from non-state activities on a case by case basis, this measure would help guide our elected representatives, prevent conflicts of interest, and increase the public’s trust in all their elected officials.

Closing the LLC Loophole

To preserve open, free, and fair elections that are not captured by wealthy public interests, state law limits the amounts that both corporations and individuals may donate directly to state candidates. However, because of a quirk in the way that present election law is interpreted, wealthy individuals and corporations can use Limited Liability Companies (“LLCs”) to avoid New York’s campaign donation limits. This “LLC Loophole” in campaign finance law has allowed special interests to circumvent both contribution limits and disclosure requirements. The Governor proposes closing the LLC Loophole for all elected officials to even the playing field so that rich and poor New Yorkers alike have their voices heard in our political process.

Subjecting Local Elected Officials to Financial Disclosure Requirements

State elected officials are not the only ones who face conflicts, or potential conflicts, of interests. Local elected officials and agents of municipalities are equally prone to such concerns, and should be subject to the same disclosure requirements as their state counterparts.

Therefore, the Governor is proposing that any local elected official who earns more than $50,000 per year in a government salary, as well as all County Executives, County Managers, and all Chairs of County Boards of Supervisors file the same financial disclosure statements that state employees file with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or a similar form to be approved by the state. This means that municipal employees would provide the same information in their financial disclosure statements as state employees, including his or her spouse’s or partner’s income. Sunlight, in this instance, goes a long way towards assuring the public that those entrusted with government service are fulfilling their duty to the public.

Instituting Public Financing and Enacting Additional Campaign Finance Reforms

Every day, ordinary New Yorkers struggle to make their voices heard in our political system. No matter the issue, candidates are incentivized to focus on large donations over small ones. The only way to truly fix this problem is to institute a public financing system for political campaigns that matches funds from small donations. Governor Cuomo is proposing to do just that by instituting a voluntary public financing system that matches small donations with public funds. Only then will all New Yorkers, not just a select few, gain the power to make their voices heard.

New York law also continues to allow unlimited contributions to party “housekeeping” accounts by individuals and corporations. These accounts are designed to support non-campaign party activities, but instead provide another mechanism for big donors to impact political campaigns. New York also still allows a campaign’s intermediary, known as a “bundler,” to pass large groupings of individual contributions to a single campaign without disclosing the bundler’s identity. Governor Cuomo is proposing to address both issues by placing a $25,000 contribution limit on housekeeping accounts and requiring all “bundlers” to disclose their identities.

Promoting Increased Transparency Through Comprehensive Reforms to the State Freedom of Information Law

The New York Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) governs the public’s right to access government records and provides transparency for citizens into the workings of state government. Governor Cuomo is proposing a comprehensive reform of FOIL to improve transparency and promote openness in state government, including requiring proactive disclosure of certain records.

But transparency cannot just be limited to the Executive—everyone must be held to the same standard. The Governor is therefore proposing that FOIL apply equally to the Legislature. Additionally, the Governor is proposing that both FOIL and the state’s Open Meetings Law apply to both JCOPE as well as the Legislative Ethics Commission to further ensure transparency, accountability, and increase public confidence in all aspects of state government.

Expanding the Authority of the New York State Inspector General

New York’s State Inspector General is charged with ensuring that state government, its employees, and all who partner with the state meet the highest standards of integrity and accountability. To that end, there have been recent reports of financial abuses at, and within, the State University of New York (SUNY), the City University of New York (CUNY), and their affiliated not-for-profits.

While the State Inspector General investigates these abuses within SUNY and CUNY, this statutory authority does not currently extend to the affiliated nonprofit entities that work in concert with the Universities. Therefore, the Governor is proposing to increase the Inspector General’s jurisdiction to include oversight of these entities. The Inspector General would be authorized to investigate complaints of corruption, fraud, criminal activity, conflicts of interest, or abuse within each university and its affiliates, and to refer potential criminal findings within these entities for prosecution.

The Governor is also proposing to broaden the Inspector General’s authority to include all state-related procurement and the implementation and enforcement of financial control policies at SUNY and CUNY. This would allow the Inspector General to oversee the policies of any affiliated nonprofit organization and foundation of each respective university.

Creating New Independent Inspectors General for the Port Authority and State Education Department

Governor Cuomo is proposing legislation that would create a New York Port Authority Inspector General who would be responsible for investigating and prosecuting any illegal behavior as it pertains to New York-related Port Authority conduct. Every New York commissioner or managerial employee will be required to report conduct concerning corruption, fraud, criminal activity, conflicts of interest, or abuse, by any person related to his or her employment with the Authority to the New York Port Authority Inspector General.

The Governor is also proposing creating a new, independent Inspector General to oversee and investigate allegations of corruption, fraud, criminal activity, conflicts of interest, or abuse, by any person within the State Education Department (SED). Unlike other state agencies, SED is not currently overseen by any investigative entity. The SED Inspector General would be appointed by mutual agreement between the Senate and Assembly.

The respective Inspectors General would also have the power to refer potential criminal findings within these entities for prosecution.

Enacting Procurement Reforms

Despite existing legal safeguards, conflicts of interest and unlawful conduct may jeopardize the impartiality and objectivity of the current procurement process. This risk is further heightened by the significant amount of dollars spent by state and local public agencies, which exceeds tens of billions of dollars annually.

The Governor is therefore proposing the creation of a Chief Procurement Officer to oversee the integrity and uniformity of procurement practices across the state and ensure state procurement staff are prepared and positioned to conduct effective and ethical procurements. To achieve these ends, the Chief Procurement Officer will spearhead a comprehensive review of current procurement practices across all state entities and relevant affiliates in order to establish best practices and implement uniform policies and procedures. These processes will be efficient, outcome-focused and designed with proper safeguards so public funds are spent with the utmost integrity. Finally, the Chief Procurement Officer will lead the development of additional statewide procurement training and knowledge sharing opportunities and coordinate with the State Inspector General on the integrity of the process.

It is also critical to prevent state contract bidders from improperly influencing the procurement process. To this end, the Governor is proposing new measures which would prohibit individuals, organizations or business entities that submit bids, quotes, or responses to state contract offers from making campaign contributions to any officeholder in the branch of government awarding the contract while the decision is pending, and for six months following the contract award.

Finally, under current practice, the Office of the State Comptroller, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Office of General Services either undertake reviews and audits or process payment of contract vendors and/or grantees that have multiple projects with the state. However, they lack a single system to track payments and audits of these entities and fail to coordinate their efforts in these areas on a routine basis. This should change and in order to do so, the Governor is proposing legislation that will direct these entities, along with the Office of Information Technologies and the Chief Procurement Officer, to collaborate on a study and make recommendations regarding initiatives to better enable the public to track state contracts and audits.

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