NY corruption scandals spurred by secrecy on officials' wealth, watchdogs say

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Watchdog groups say New York State's weak financial disclosure laws set the stage for the political scandals that have touched the Hudson Valley recently, by shielding the investment and financial interests of elected officials from public view.

The watchdogs admit that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has toughened the state's ethics laws since taking office in 2011, pushing through legislation that requires state and local officials to file information relating to properties they own, bank accounts and investments, as well as the estimated value of investments and income derived from them.

But in practice, critics say, the information officials file is not made available to the public.

When that information is sought through Freedom of Information Law requests, much of it is redacted -- frequently just blacked out with marker -- leaving the public in the dark about how much money elected officials or their spouses are making and where it is being spent.

"There's really no point in having financial disclosures if the finances aren't being disclosed," said Sean Moulton, with the Washington-based Center for Effective Government. "The public should have access to this information."

Last year, when the Center for Public Integrity ranked and graded the 50 states according to the adequacy of their financial disclosure requirements, New York was ranked 37th and given an overall grade of "D." The state that ranked number one for integrity in public life was New Jersey, in part financial disclosures are more readily accessible to the public there. Number two was Connecticut.

New York's elected officials don't hesitate to defend limits on disclosure and accessibility, arguing that a person's net worth should be private information, even when the person holds a public office.

"What you are trying to do is not determine a person's wealth. You're trying to prevent conflict of interest," said Assemb. Tom Abinanti (D-Tarrytown), a lawyer who has helped craft the state's public disclosure laws. "Whether I make a lot of money at my private law firm or not isn't relevant to the public. The real question is, who are my clients?"

MONEY AND POLITICAL SCANDAL

In Mount Vernon, financial disclosure is at the center of a federal investigation involving Mayor Ernie Davis, who has accumulated more than $1 million in private real estate holdings since he came to City Hall more than 13 years ago. Davis owns at least 10 properties in four states, and has filed information about the investments at city hall in Mount Vernon.

Yet a FOIL request for the mayor's financial disclosures yielded documents relating to only one year, 2012, and much of the detail in the documents -- such as the estimated values of the properties and rental income from them -- had been redacted.

Davis has conceded to Newsday that he amended his 2012 financial disclosure form -- including two properties not previously mentioned -- after learning of the federal probe of his personal finances. Investigators are examining how the mayor acquired the real estate and whether he properly reported rental income from the properties to the Internal Revenue Service.

Davis, who makes about $200,000 a year from his salary and a state pension, has denied any wrongdoing.

The city's Ethics Board, which is required to review disclosure documents to ensure that city officials don't have a conflict of interest, has complained that disclosure forms filed by Davis and several other high-ranking city administrators are incomplete.

Mount Vernon isn't the only local government that keeps the financial information of its elected officials a secret. Newsday has submitted FOIL requests to other city and county governments, only to receive documents in which many details have been redacted.

For example, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino's financial disclosures show that he does consulting work for a media company; but how much the Republican leader makes from the side job has been redacted from copies of the forms provided to Newsday in answer to a FOIL request.

Along the same lines, disclosure forms filed by New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, a Democratic candidate for county executive, show that he does political consulting work for Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Harrison). But the numbers showing exactly how much he makes from that work have been redacted from copies given to Newsday.

Moulton points out that the president and members of Congress make their personal financial details public voluntarily. He says state and local officials should be doing the same, if only to eliminate suspicion.

"Thousands of public officials fill out financial disclosures that are publicly available to see where they get their money from and how much they have," he said. "It factors into whether this person is a leader making good choices."

RYE WEIGHING DISCLOSURES

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In Rye, city officials are weighing adoption of their own set of financial disclosure requirements, focusing on conflicts of interest.

Rye is one of Westchester County's most affluent communities -- where the average home value is more than $1.4 million and where the mayor and some City Council members have six-figure jobs as lawyers and corporate executives in Manhattan. Because the city's population is less than 50,000, city officials aren't required to disclose personal finances.

City officials feel they may need to impose their own requirements because of a scandal at the city-owned Rye Golf Club. Scott Yandrasevich, the former manager of the club, is accused of bilking the city out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by funneling money to a shadowy staffing company that he and his wife controlled. A roughly similar set of accusations surfaced in Spring Valley recently, where mayor Noramie Jasmin stands accused of rigging approval for a real estate project in which she held a secret interest.

"If we had stronger reporting requirements for city employees, we might have caught something earlier," said Rye City Manager Scott Pickup. "Certainly people can mislead you, but it would have given us a window into what was going on at the club."

Still -- consistent with the existing state laws -- Rye officials say much of the financial information won't be made public.

"There were a lot of concerns about that in our discussion," Pickup said. "Obviously, people have some right to privacy."

DOES THE PUBLIC WANT TO KNOW?

Public opinion on the subject of financial disclosure varies widely and seems to be divided along socioeconomic lines. People from working-class backgrounds say politicians should open up the books, while more affluent individuals tend to be more conservative about disclosure.

Jeff Sonshine, a stock trader who works in Rye, said he thinks certain information, such as campaign contributions and investment holdings, should be available to the public. But when it comes to personal financial details, such as amounts earned with different clients, not so much.

"When you talk about having every politician from top to bottom releasing all of their personal information such as bank accounts, I'm not sure I need to see all that," the 64-year-old said. "I don't care if a mayor inherited a million bucks from his grandfather or if the wife is loaded. I'm more interested in how they are being influenced by corporate money."

Jeff Kane, a 56-year-old contractor, disagrees.

"I think the public should have an idea of where politicians are getting their money from and how much they get," he said. "What's the big deal? If they don't have anything to hide, why wouldn't they release those things?"

Erica Jameson, 32, of Yonkers, said she thinks the information should be available to everyone.

"We are supposed to hold our elected officials to a higher standard than regular citizens, right? So why shouldn't they have to release that information?" said the office worker. "The public has a right to know that stuff."

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