Considering the scandals in the New York State Legislature, one would think that battered lawmakers would be eager to clean up their reputation. Instead, they’ve hired lawyers to fight a new anticorruption commission’s efforts to find out precisely where they earn outside income. This fight, they insist, is all about maintaining a separation of powers and protecting the Legislature from an intrusive executive. The real reason is that revealing income sources could also uncover conflicts of interest.
New York, like many other states, has a part-time Legislature; the 212 members get a base salary of $79,500, plus leadership bonuses and expenses. Now the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and staffed with top-flight lawyers and prosecutors, has started asking about the private business deals lawmakers have kept hidden for decades.
Even where state law requires some minimal disclosure, legislators have made it hard to find the details. To take just one obstacle, lawmakers fill out disclosure forms by hand; when the form was posted on the Internet this summer, it took two public interest groups, Common Cause/NY and New York Public Interest Research Group; a newspaper, The New York World at Columbia University; and two interns working for two weeks to make sense of it all.
What they found merely whets the appetite for even greater disclosure. The Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, made up to $920,000 for his work with a law firm and his investments; the Senate Republican leader, Dean Skelos, earned as much as $263,000 in legal work, investments and deferred compensation. All told, 115 of the 212 legislators earned income on the side.
Crucially, however, these raw numbers do not show in detail where that money comes from, and thus where the conflicts of interest may lie. Is this legal client pushing a particular piece of legislation? Is that insurance company seeking a tax exemption?
Last week, lawmakers rebuffed a request for details of outside employment in 2012 of more than $20,000, including private law clients. The commission will have to subpoena those records, including lists of lawyers’ clients.
The Moreland commission was instructed to investigate any corrupt corner of state government, including the legislative and executive branches. It is also expected to propose crucial reforms in December to help clean up Albany’s ingrained corruption. The commission should not back down, no matter how desperate state politicians may be to keep Albany the way it is.