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Reform groups feud with Cuomo over open leaders meeting

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A call by government reform groups for an open leaders meeting on ethics reform tuned into a spat between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the groups themselves.

The New York Public Interest Research Group, Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters, and Common Cause, are calling for an end to the long Albany tradition of closed door meetings between the governor and legislative leaders where they make key decisions on the budget and other issues, known as three men in a room. They want a leaders meeting, open to the public, to discuss ethics reform.

“This is a well-trod path of secretive negotiations on ethic with an unsatisfying resolution,” said Horner. “Let’s try openness.”

The groups are seeking major changes, in the wake of the arrest and conviction of the two majority party legislative leaders, including banning or strictly limiting outside income,  and closing loopholes in the campaign finance system that allow for unlimited contributions in some cases.

Dick Dadey, with Citizens Union, says the current system, with its unrestricted outside income for lawmakers, is ripe for continued corruption.

“If we wanted to design the perfect system for corruption as it relates to legislative compensation, we have it,” Dadey said.

He says lawmakers have not received a pay raise in 18 years, which came as a result of a larger political deal. There is a new pay commission, enacted last year, that may decide on issuing more regular salary increases in the future. Until less than a year ago, there was no oversight of how lawmakers used, or misused the per diem expense payments they receive while in Albany. And Dadey says legislators are too dependent on collecting campaign cash with few restrictions on how it is spent.

Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, says proposals for fixes aren’t new.

“This isn’t rocket science,” she said. “It is the political will that they lack.”

The governor, who has spent little time lately at the Capitol, was holding events in New York City and Long Island instead.

Cuomo, who has also been traveling around the state to campaign for the $15 minimum wage, has said ethics reform remains a top priority for him.

“I don’t know how I could have been any louder on ethics what I was in my state of the State of the State,” said Cuomo, who proposed closing the limited liability company contribution loophole, greatly restricting lawmaker’s  outside income, and requiring greater transparency .

In response to the groups’ call, a spokesman for Cuomo, did not address the question of an open leaders meeting, saying instead ethics and campaign finance reform “will be discussed” but did not say whether that will in public or in private.

The spokesman for Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi,  then attacked the reform groups themselves, saying the governor also wants “more disclosure by not-for-profits as to who actually funds them and whether they are shadow lobbyists.?"

Bartoletti with the League of Women Voters, is a volunteer and not paid for her work. She responds to the charge, admitting freely that she belongs to a front group.

“We’re a front group for voters,” Bartoletti said. “Ninety percent of voters in the last survey say ‘get this ethics reform done’.”

And she says information on the league’s donors, which consist mostly of its board members, is easily available. 

Horner, with NYPIRG says he’s fine with more disclosure and will comply with any new rules that the governor and leaders agree to.

Citizens Union’s Dadey said, in response “Non-profits like Citizens Union are not funded by the taxpayers as are the salaries of state elected officials. We are a membership and independent, nonpartisan, and funded entirely by private contributions.” He says his group “goes above and beyond what is required by the federal, state and local authorities” when it comes to naming donors and financial activities. 

If an open leaders meeting were to be held, there would be at least one participant. The leader of the Senate Democrats, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, says she’ll be there.

“Ethics is certainly important and I’d be more than happy to have an open leaders meeting on that,” Stewart-Cousins said.  “And anything else.”

However, Democrats, who are in the minority in the Senate, have been traditionally shut out of the closed door meetings. The meetings normally only include the majority party legislative leaders.

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.