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State lawmakers close to ethics law deal

New York Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville

New York Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Albany. (April 26, 2010) Credit: AP

ALBANY -- State lawmakers are close to an agreement to toughen New York's ethics laws.

The deal could be announced as soon as Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said Wednesday.

The accord, a key goal of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, would compel state legislators, who are considered part time, to disclose far more information about their outside clients and business interests, individuals familiar with the talks said. It would also force lawmakers convicted of felonies to forfeit their pensions.

The new ethics measure would come after a series of major scandals that have rocked the Capitol in recent years. Between 2005 and last year, 13 legislators, including former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick), left office or were voted out after criminal charges or ethical misconduct allegations. Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor in a prostitution scandal, and former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, like Spitzer, a Democrat, was sentenced to prison in connection with a kickback scheme.

Under the agreement being discussed, a new ethics oversight panel, with six appointees named by the governor and six by legislative leaders, would be created. Gubernatorial control of the panel has been a major concern of rank-and-file legislators, who didn't want it dominated by any one politician.

The panel would have the authority to investigate ethics claims. But in another nod to lawmakers' concerns over separation of government powers, it would hand over cases to the Legislative Ethics Commission for adjudication and sanctions, officials said.

Skelos said Wednesday that negotiations were close to conclusion: "I think there's an opportunity to get it done" Thursday, he said.

Though he wouldn't go into detail about any potential agreement, Skelos said no oversight panel should be dominated by any governmental branch.

"It has to be fairly done," Skelos said. "No one side should have the ability to go: 'gotcha.' "

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said, "We'll be out with a bill" that he, Skelos and Cuomo agree on. But Silver stopped short of saying when or spelling out details.

Cuomo also balked when asked about particulars such as the composition of the oversight panel, saying only: "Ethics reform is a difficult and a complex issue." Later, Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto emphasized: "We're still negotiating."

Cuomo has said forcing lawmakers who are lawyers, real-estate agents and business consultants to disclose the names of their clients who do business with the state would act as a deterrent and would help clean up the legislature's reputation.

But some who are lawyers have questioned whether a law firm -- not just the lawmaker who is part of the firm -- would have to disclose all of its clients who do business with the state. Any agreement would probably force them to do just that, said officials familiar with the negotiations.

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