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Reform group says NY Times report is evidence Albany needs more anti-corruption laws


The New York Times is reporting that federal investigators are probing outside income paid to the New York state Assembly speaker, among other lawmakers. A reform group says the article is one more reason Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature should adopt long overdue ethical changes.

Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, says legislators are finding that if they don’t change their policies they are increasingly finding themselves in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors. She says her group hopes to convince them to do so.

“We are always attempting to get our lawmakers to help themselves do better,” Lerner said.

According to the Times, a federal grand jury has subpoenaed records to try to document just how Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver earns what he says is $650,000 a year from the Manhattan firm Weitz and Luxenberg, and possibly other law firms. The paper reports that investigators also discovered the Speaker had subtly changed his financial disclosure forms to reflect that he may be getting some of his income from other unnamed law firms. Perry Weitz, one of the firm’s founders, is on the board of directors of the Trial Lawyers, a major lobbying force in Albany.  

The story says other lawmakers are targets as well, including retiring Sen. Greg Ball and Sen. George Maziarz. Ball used campaign funds to take trips to Cancun, Acapulco and Texas. Maziarz’s account shows payments to Pier 1 and other shops, and several checks were written out to cash with no explanation of how they were spent.

None of the alleged behaviors are likely to be determined illegal. Lerner, with Common Cause, says that’s because of weaknesses in the state’s ethics laws concerning campaign funds and outside income disclosure.

“It confirms how badly we need reform,” Lerner said.

Cuomo appointed a Moreland Commission on ethics that had begun looking into lawmakers’ outside income and use of campaign funds. But the governor shut down the commission last March as part of a budget deal amid accusations that his staff meddled with, and tried to stop, investigations of Cuomo contributors. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara continues to probe those charges. Lerner calls the shuttering of the commission a disappointing lost chance.

The newspaper reports Cuomo, who once campaigned against the use of LLCs or Limited Liability Corporations as a convenient loophole to get around campaign donation limits, himself received 20 percent of his $47 million in donations from LLCs.  

Lerner says the public has been demoralized by all of the reports of corruption. She says the record low voter turnout during last month's election is partly a response to that. But she says voters’ non-participation sends the wrong message to state lawmakers.

“Indifferent is a vote for the current corrupt system,” she said.

The legislature is still considering a special session this month to raise lawmakers’ pay. Legislative leaders have expressed interest in one kind of reform. They’d like to change what’s known as the per diem system, where lawmakers are paid a set rate for each day they are at the state Capitol.  Abuse of the per diem system has led to indictments of some lawmakers.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.