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Silver case puts new focus on state legislators and possible conflicts of interest

Assembly members discuss and vote on the state

Assembly members discuss and vote on the state budget on the floor of the chamber on Monday, March 31, 2014 in Albany. Credit: Philip Kamrass

ALBANY - A federal probe that has forced powerful Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to step down has focused attention on the nearly 20 percent of state legislators who are also lawyers and whether their private practices conflict with their public duties.

Forty-one of 213 state legislators reported outside income on their latest ethics filings from work in law firms or as an individual, or both, according to a study by the New York Public Interest Research Group.

On Long Island, 13 of the 31 legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), also work as lawyers, according to a review of their required ethics filings for 2013, the most recent year available.

Senators and Assembly members must assert that their private jobs don't conflict with their legislative jobs. Legislators are part-time and allowed to take outside jobs to augment their $79,500 base salary as lawmakers, which can be boosted to $100,000 or more for most when leadership stipends and per diem checks are added.

 

Work details murky

Exactly what work they do and who their clients are, however, are not required to be disclosed. Some lawmakers report working "of counsel" with a major law firm where their role isn't publicly defined and some lawmakers also conduct their own practices. The self-reported details are as broad as "general practice" and "civil litigation" while some include areas of law such as real estate and municipal law.

Saying the dual roles push New Yorkers' "suspicion button," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is trying to use his considerable leverage in the state budget to force lawmakers to draw a clear line between their public and private roles.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara late last month accused longtime Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of using his private law practice to collect millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for steering legislation and state funds. Bharara said Silver could do that because under existing law, he didn't have to disclose his full private income or how he got it.

 

Albany to the 'core'

Bharara said the "very core" of Albany is its "lack of transparency, lack of accountability, and lack of principle joined with an overabundance of greed, cronyism, and self-dealing." And he warned of more cases to come: "Stay tuned."

Silver is now on a leave of absence from the firm and has submitted his resignation as speaker effective Monday.

Skelos' signed ethics filing reports he is an attorney in general practice from an office in his home and, in a separate line, for Ruskin Moscou Faltischek in Uniondale. But when told about the two entries Friday, Skelos' spokesman Scott Reif said the reference to a private law practice operating from the senator's home was an error made by a staffer. Reif said Skelos doesn't practice independently.

Skelos reports he receives $150,000 to $250,000 for his private law work, according to the filing with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

State records show how difficult avoiding appearances of conflicts can be when part-time legislators split their time as lawyers in the private sector, where lobbyists also seek to influence public decisions.

For example, longtime Albany lobbyist Arthur "Jerry" Kremer works for the same law firm as Skelos. The firm's website identifies him as "partner and chair of the Municipal and Regulatory Affairs Department." Kremer is also chairman of Empire Government Strategies, which lobbies Albany, lobbying records show.

Kremer, however, said he is no longer a partner at the firm where Skelos works. He said he is now only an attorney and doesn't direct or participate in the compensation decisions of attorneys.

Skelos and Kremer say they take pains to avoid conflicts when Kremer is lobbying Albany.

"My policy -- all the years -- was I don't deal with Dean," Kremer said. "I do not. It's off-limits." Instead, Kremer said he lobbies other senators and Assembly members.

"There is a wall," said Skelos' spokesman Reif. "He doesn't have anything to do with that. There is a total wall. They don't discuss it . . . anything relevant."

State records show legislators also working for law firms include Senate Education Committee chairman John Flanagan (R-East Northport), who makes $100,000 to $150,000; and Health Committee chairman Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), who is special counsel to another firm from which he received $75,000 to $100,000 for general practice law with an emphasis on land use and planning.

Assemb. Thomas McKevitt (R-East Meadow) is special counsel to a firm where he practices in the areas of municipal law, real estate, zoning, land use and estate planning. He states that he makes $20,000 to $50,000 from the law practice. Assemb. Edward Ra (R-Franklin Square) is counsel at a Uniondale law firm making $20,000 to $50,000 practicing law involving land use, zoning and real estate.

The records show at least six of the lawyer-legislators are involved in real estate law and three are real estate brokers.

 

Outside income targeted

Cuomo has targeted lawmakers' outside income in his current budget proposal. Cuomo wants to create a commission that would, among other things, consider capping the outside income of legislators and require greater disclosure of outside income.

"Is the outside income in any way connected to your position as a legislator? And the best way to answer that is to say this is where my outside income came from," he said last week. "No secrets, total transparency, so the public knows where the funds come from."

Blair Horner of NYPIRG, which did the study of legislators collecting outside income, said more detail must be required of lawmakers who also engage in private law practices.

"The point of the law is for the public to monitor potential conflicts of interests," Horner said.

David Grandeau, the former executive director of the state lobbying commission, said the dual roles -- even when legal -- are taking a toll.

"The time has come for lawyer-legislators or any legislator with outside income to stop relying on, 'It's legal,' and start asking, 'How does it appear?' " said Grandeau, who now represents lobbying clients.

"The appearance of impropriety in this environment we're in is perhaps more important than actual impropriety because it erodes public confidence and draws the interests of prosecutors and law enforcement," he said.

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