Try to shine a light on the back corridors of the New York State Legislature and lawmakers will run to the courts to try to make you stop. That is the discouraging way of things in Albany, where lawmakers want desperately not to let constituents know where they are making money outside of government.
The Moreland Commission, created by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to flush out corruption in the sewer pipe that Albany has become, is demanding that lawmakers turn over information about outside employment that paid more than $20,000 in 2012, including a description of the work performed and how pay was determined. For the lawyers in the Legislature, that could also include “a list of your clients in any civil matters or in any publicly filed criminal matters.”
Lawmakers have hired lawyers to block the commission. They dress it up in arguments about separation of powers and lawyer-client privilege, but the truth is that legislators don’t want to lose their ability to trade on their official status to make more money – sometimes gobs of it. That can also create conflicts of interest about which the public has a compelling right to know, certainly a greater right than lawmakers have to conceal those conflicts.
Lawmakers have traditionally made it difficult for constituents to piece together their activities. The reports they do file can be sketchy and hard to follow. It was no wonder they refused to enact tough ethics laws this spring, leading Cuomo to follow through on his promise to create a Moreland Commission, based on a 1907 law that provides investigatory powers to the state’s governor.
Few issues have demanded greater attention, and Cuomo has stacked his commission with high-powered talent. Consider the environment in which it is operating: This spring alone has brought a half-dozen federal indictments against lawmakers.
Top officials have been charged with crimes in recent years, including former Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who recently completed his prison term, and former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, who is scheduled for a retrial in December after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out part of the law on which he was initially convicted.
It’s a morass, funded by taxpayers, and legislators want to protect it. There is no reason that lawmakers shouldn’t disclose where they make outside money and from whom they receive it.
If the lawyers on the Legislature think that’s an infringement on their trade, then they can resign. No one is requiring them to pursue a political career. They have a choice to make – and that includes Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos, both of whom make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from their law firms.
Neither Cuomo nor the commission should let up on this matter. It is possible that a judge would side with legislators, but the continued pressure will make it more difficult for lawmakers to continue as they have, especially if voters let their legislators know they expect ethics, or something approximating them, to take hold in Albany.