During election season, candidates frequently promise honesty in government. Unfortunately, once in office, some on Long Island have found it hard to take even the first easy steps toward that standard.
New York State long ago passed a law that local governments with populations of 50,000 or more must establish a code of ethics and that top officeholders must complete timely financial disclosure statements. These forms tell the public about the private interests of officials and employees, and help identify potential conflicts.
However, in the Town of Hempstead — the biggest town in the nation — officials were more than a little tardy in putting their financial cards on the table. As Newsday has reported, Hempstead was late by 121 days in posting on its website the 2022 financial disclosure statements for its top officials. Town code requires board members, the supervisor and others in leadership positions to file these forms by May 15 and for those filings to be posted on the town website within 30 days.
On their forms, officials are required to disclose real estate ownership within the town. Makes sense, right? After all, wouldn’t you want to know whether a new development approved publicly in Hempstead was somehow making an official privately rich?
Yet when they filed forms, most Hempstead officials reported that they didn’t own any property in or near Hempstead Town. Town ethics counsel Steven Leventhal told Newsday that in his opinion this failure to even list homeownership wasn’t a violation, because these officials disclosed their home addresses on the form.
Hempstead’s weak response to these basic steps toward accountability underscores a statewide problem. In December 2020, the state comptroller’s office concluded from audits of 20 local governments around the state that they “should do more to ensure proper ethics oversight.” The comptroller found 90% of these municipalities did not make sure that annual financial disclosure statements were filed completely, and none ensured that they were filed on time. Half the ethics boards failed to review the forms for potential conflicts of interest or for completeness. Long Island municipalities audited for that report included the towns of Oyster Bay and Southampton as well as Suffolk County.
In this report card, while Suffolk generally got good grades for following ethics laws, the comptroller found that 98 Oyster Bay officers and employees had failed to file their annual financial disclosures. Similarly, in Southampton, one town board member and 28 other officers and employees filed their disclosure forms late. These problems were only addressed after the state’s audits.
State enforcement for violating these rules should be tougher. Gov. Kathy Hochul and the State Legislature should button this up in the coming year.
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