Before Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders reached a deal on the 2015-16 state budget they had to settle a few outstanding issues, including the governor's demand that any budget agreement include tougher ethics rules for public officials.
Cuomo had his own plan, which he released a couple of weeks after ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested on federal corruption charges. One of his proposals was "total disclosure," which would require elected officials to disclose all outside income, services provided and if there was any connection between the work and their public office.
There were concerns about making outside income disclosure requirements more stringent. State Sen. John DeFrancisco said he, along with a group of other lawyers who serve in the Senate, negotiated directly with Cuomo and reached a "reasonable compromise."
The agreement: State officials who work as lawyers and real estate brokers must disclose client names, services provided, amount of compensation and whether there's a link to any government action if payments exceed $5,000. There are exemptions for "sensitive activities," including child custody cases, matrimonial work, criminal cases and residential home transactions.
DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, outlined a hypothetical situation in which a wealthy individual asks a lawyer (who serves in the state Legislature) to handle their divorce proceedings. Under the original proposal put forth by Cuomo, the legislator would be forced to disclose the client's name — if compensation exceeded $5,000 — and the sensitive nature of the case.
"We got certain types of cases exempt as long as these people are not doing business with the state of New York," DeFrancisco said in a phone interview. "What ended up happening is there was a certain group of cases that were excluded from disclosure — matrimonials, estate and trust work. Criminal work is another example."
Exempting criminal cases is important, according to DeFrancisco, because of the "extremely confidential dealings" with clients in those proceedings.
"We tried to make that broad enough because none of these people are doing business with the state and nobody should have the right to know who the lawyer is counseling," he said. "There's a privacy expectation by clients coming to you and many clients would say, 'Forget it. No way I'm going to go to you if you have to disclose my name.' That's a legitimate, very important part of the changes in the ethics laws. And the governor agreed."
There are some activities not covered by the exemptions, DeFrancisco said. Commercial real estate transactions and negligence cases aren't exempt from the new outside income disclosure requirements.
DeFrancisco questioned why negligence cases weren't excluded.
"Somebody gets hit by a car. What in God's name does that have to do with potential corruption as a state legislator? Nothing, nada. It's ridiculous," he said. "It should have been part of the exclusions. The governor's original bill did not have that and it's not exempted."
Overall, DeFrancisco said the agreement has "moved forward" the income disclosure requirements. But he acknowledged that there are critics, including several good government groups, who believe there should be more disclosure or a total ban on outside income.
DeFrancisco said a part-time state Legislature that allows legislators to earn outside income is important because then lawmakers aren't reliant on a political position for their livelihood.
"People that have an outside life are much more likely to be independent in their decisions in the Legislature rather than totally dependent on your elected office, which you have to run for every two years," he said.
"That's the type of person, in my mind, that would be more concerned about their public career because that's their livelihood and they want to move up the chain. They are much less independent, in my mind, than someone who's got a life outside of politics that could live on that life outside of politics and not have to worry about pleasing everybody as they go through their political life."
There are several other ethics reform provisions in the budget, including a constitutional amendment that would strip state officials of their pensions if they are convicted of public conviction. Changes to the per diem system will be implemented, the personal use of campaign funds will be banned and more disclosure of independent expenditures will be required.
More funding — a $1.2 million hike — will be provided to aid the Joint Commission on Public Ethics' enforcement efforts. And a commission will be appointed by the governor and state Legislature to review the performance of JCOPE and the Legislative Ethics Commission.
In a statement, Cuomo hailed the ethics reform package as "transformative."
"These measures will create the strongest and most comprehensive ethics laws for public officials of any state in the nation," he said.