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New bill proposes $3,000 limit for gifts to public officials

Sen. Todd Kaminsky and Assemb. Charles Lavine, announce

Sen. Todd Kaminsky and Assemb. Charles Lavine, announce legislation to bolster New York's bribery laws at a news conference on Wednesday, July 20, 2016 in Rockville Centre. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Public officials could not accept gifts or benefits in excess of $3,000 that were provided to them because of their public position — even if they took no government action in return — under a new bill by State Sen. Todd Kaminsky and Assemb. Charles Lavine.

At a news conference Wednesday in Rockville Centre, Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) argued that the legislation was “desperately needed” because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that he said had “defanged” federal bribery statutes.

“We have proposed common sense legislation that says, ‘if it smells like corruption, it looks like corruption, it is illegal corruption,’” said Kaminsky, who won the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), who was convicted on federal corruption charges.

The bill, introduced last week, would make it a felony for public officials to accept any benefit or gift worth more than $3,000 that was given specifically “because of that person’s official position.”

The legislation, which states that campaign contributions are allowable, does not require prosecutors to prove that officials took or promised a public action in exchange for the gift.

Lavine (D-Glen Cove) said the legislation, first proposed by the New York State Bar Association’s Government Ethics Task Force in 2011, “will protect each and every citizen of the state of New York.”

Senate Republicans, who control the chamber, contend that Kaminsky’s bill attempts to criminalize officials for earning outside income.

“All this really amounts to is another attempt to create a full-time legislature with a massive, taxpayer-funded pay raise,” said Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reif.

Senate Republicans have opposed previous bills introduced by Kaminsky that would restrict lawmakers from earning most forms of outside income.

Kaminsky, a former federal prosecutor, said the new legislation would not affect the ability of public officials to earn compensation “through legitimate outside work ... If someone earns income by performing a service in a nonlegislative capacity, they are receiving income for a reason other than their status as a legislator.”

The proposed legislation comes in the wake of last month’s Supreme Court ruling that overturned the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.

McDonnell and his wife received cash and gifts from a businessman who wanted state support for testing a new drug. The court said that while McDonnell arranged meetings, made calls and hosted events, those acts did not qualify as “official acts” that exposed him to federal anti-corruption laws.

Skelos, who was convicted in December on federal corruption charges along with his son, Adam, is expected to use the McDonnell decision as he seeks a new trial. Dean and Adam Skelos are appealing.

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