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Cuomo: Freedom of Info Law should cover legislature

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks during

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks during a news conference in the Red Room at the Capitol in Albany. (Sept. 19, 2012) Credit: AP

ALBANY -- In the wake of the Assemb. Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Thursday raised the notion of "reforming" the law that allows state legislators to avoid releasing certain confidential information because they are largely excluded from the state Freedom of Information Law.

In a radio interview about a possible special session of the legislature in December, Cuomo suggested the change in light of revelations that the state Assembly paid $135,000 -- $103,000 in public money -- to former staffers of Lopez (D-Brooklyn) to resolve the sexual harassment claims. The payment was approved by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who now says he erred by agreeing to confidentiality and not sending the case to the Assembly Ethics Committee.

Cuomo noted that information about such legislative settlements is not publicly attainable -- because the legislature is immune from the state information law -- and suggested that could be changed.

"One of the reasons why the public wouldn't have a right to know about that agreement, or wouldn't get that agreement, is because there's no FOIL for the legislature," he said. "That's the difference between the executive and the legislative [branches] on this."

The claims of harassment against Lopez and the settlement are the subject of criminal and civil investigations.

Cuomo noted that the state has signed "many, many" confidentiality agreements, but all are subject to the Freedom of Information Law. Newsday and other media have been looking at more than a dozen settlements reached by the state, including by Cuomo's office when he was attorney general, valued at more than $5 million.

Spokesmen for Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Cuomo said he would not consider a special session if a legislative pay raise were the only issue.

He noted it's not just state legislators who want a pay raise. He said he's had a difficult time filling executive branch positions because the pay isn't competitive, including for commissioners.

"It's very hard to get talented people to come be part of this process," Cuomo said. "The salaries are not competitive."

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