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New state ethics measure mandates disclosure of lawmakers' private legal clients

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx) reads over bills from

Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx) reads over bills from his seat in the Assembly Chamber before the start of session Monday afternoon, March 30, 2015, at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. Credit: Albany Times Union / WW

ALBANY -- A new ethics measure will force state lawmakers to disclose their private law clients for the first time, but will continue to allow lawmakers to collect salaries from outside firms even when they do not represent specific clients.

The ethics law was a key component of a $150 billion state budget lawmakers began voting on Monday. The spending plan also includes a process to create a new teacher evaluation system aimed at weeding out bad teachers and rewarding the best, and a $1.6 billion increase in school aid to $23.5 billion.

The administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called the ethics measure the best in the nation, saying it will require legislator/lawyers to be more specific in their annual ethics filings. The ethics package will require legislators who are lawyers and other professionals licensed by the state to disclose clients who pay them more than $5,000 a year.

Lawmakers will have to include the types of service they provide at a firm, such as reviewing documents and consulting with colleagues on specific cases.

Legislators also would have to identify clients if the lawmaker's work -- no matter how broad -- is billed to any client. Vague answers -- while not a violation -- would be a red flag that could be investigated by prosecutors or the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, administration officials said.

Cuomo had made the ethics measure critical to the deal last month, after former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) was arrested earlier this year on charges of using an outside job to profit from his public role. Silver has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.

Good-government advocates Monday were critical of the final bill, which Cuomo and the legislature wouldn't release publicly.

Under the measure, lawmakers will have until Dec. 31 to shed some or all of their clients before the new ethics measure takes effect, according to an official familiar with the final version.

The package also leaves standing current rules that allow lawmakers to work for law firms that can do business with the state, yet have no clients themselves. They operate under the broad job title "of counsel," advising lawyers in the firms.

"I will absolutely guarantee you that any lawyer/legislator who wants to earn outside income won't have to disclose" clients, said former lobbying commission executive director David Grandeau, who now represents clients dealing with state regulations.

"We expect there will be exceptions to the disclosure rule that will make it not as broad as is needed," said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union, a good-government group.

Clients in divorce, estate and some other cases automatically would be exempt from disclosure as long as they didn't do business with the state.

The budget deal includes a commission to recommend pay raises for lawmakers, but Cuomo and legislative leaders said it wasn't used as a trade for the ethics measure.

"I said I would not sign a budget without real ethics reform, and this budget does just that," Cuomo said.

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