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Committee to Save New York controversy overshadows ethics hearing

Karen DeWitt/WRVO

A lobbying group closely associated with Governor Andrew Cuomo was the elephant in the room during a hearing by the state ethics commission on new rules for donor disclosure.

The governor's chairwoman of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore, presided over the hearing, which took public input on how much lobby groups should be required to disclose about political donations.

The hearing comes two days after the New York Times reported that a lobbying group closely associated with Cuomo, the Committee to Save New York, had received over $2 million from the gambling corporation Genting, just weeks before the governor made a Genting convention center project the centerpiece of his State of the State message.

Ravi Batra, an attorney appointed to the commission by the Senate Democrats, was the only commissioner to mention the Cuomo and Committee to Save New York controversy directly.

“The recent disclosures of this week have left me stunned,” Batra said.  

Many of the government reform groups who testified were also circumspect, but Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, chided the Committee to Save New York for setting a bad precedent. She says the committee, which is formed as a not-for-profit 501c4, is using rules intended to protect givers to charitable and civil rights concerns as a “cloak”  to “shield from disclosure”  names of donors who give money for more purely political purposes.

“I think it has become a loophole,” said Lerner, speaking to reporters after the hearing. “We need to stop talking about a divide between campaign money and lobbying money and start to talk about political money.”

Lerner says Common Cause is also a 501c4, and lists all donors to the organization on its website. She says the Committee to Save New York, and Cuomo, could prevent being the “lightening rod for press criticism,” if they only did the same.

“You end the story by just coming forward and revealing what everyone is chasing after and not hiding,” Lerner said.

The ethics commission will need to decide when the requirement for lobbying groups to disclose their donors should begin.  Some testified that the law might only require that money collected after the new rules take effect be made public.  Others, like  Lerner with Common Cause, says the lobbying groups should have to reveal donors going back at least ten months, to when the new law was signed by Cuomo, on August 15, 2011.

Commissioner Batra says he supports the retroactive disclosure, saying everyone knew about the law when it was signed by the governor last August.

“There’d be no  surprise, no shock,” said Batra.

If the ethics commission decides to require donor reporting retroactively, donors to the Committee to Save New York in 2011, including Genting, would have to be revealed. If the commission decides only to require reporting going forward, then the donors from that time period will remain secret.  

Batra was the only commissioner to closely question each of the people testifying. The other commissioners present kept silent throughout the hearing and did not ask any questions. At one point, JCOPE Chairwoman Janet DiFiore attempted to cut Batra off, telling the person testifying that he did not have to answer Batra’s question, which was about potential money laundering of campaign contributions through 5014cs.  

“I don’t think you need to answer that question,” DiFiore told the witness.

Directly after the hearing, Batra complained of feeling  ill and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance.  A spokesman for JCOPE says Batra was taken to the hospital “out of an abundance of caution,” because he complained of feeling “fatigued and faint,” but appeared to be well later in the day.

The ethics commission has set no timetable to finish the new disclosure rules. They were originally supposed to be completed by June 1.

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.