Top NY Lawmakers Defend Response to Albany’s Ethics Dilemma

February 10, 2016 Updated: February 10, 2016

By David Klepper

ALBANY, N.Y.—More than a month into their legislative session, New York state lawmakers are making little progress in tackling Albany’s corruption problem, despite polls that show the public is fed up with the wave of arrests and convictions of Capitol insiders.

This year the debate has focused on a proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to limit lawmakers’ outside income. It’s an effort to prevent lawmakers, particularly those who work as attorneys, from trading their influence for payments disguised as professional income.

Republican Senate Leader John Flanagan says the voters he talks to want the Legislature to prioritize other issues.

“God’s honest truth, the most important thing I hear about from people is jobs,” he said when asked about Cuomo’s proposal. “They want economic development, they want a chance to have good economic opportunity for them and their families…. Do some people talk about it? Yes. But it is way at the bottom of the priority list.”

Democratic Speaker Carl Heastie says the proposal remains under review, and points to modest ethics reforms passed last year.

“We’re looking at new proposals,” he said. “But I also want to remind people … we have made many changes. But as always we’re going to look to do things better.”

The comments came a day after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office convicted Heastie and Flanagan’s immediate predecessors last year, visited Albany and railed against what he said was a “rancid culture” of self-dealing.

Cuomo, speaking to reporters on Feb. 8, said he believes it will take public pressure to force the lawmakers to accept the restrictions on income.

More than 30 lawmakers have been forced from office by convictions or allegations of misconduct since 2000. Last year, both former Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were convicted of federal corruption charges.

Lawmakers now make $79,500 for what is considered a part-time job. Most lawmakers report no other income, and only 24 lawmakers, mostly lawyers, reported making about as much or more in outside income as their base annual pay from the state. Cuomo’s plan would limit lawmakers’ outside income to 15 percent of their base pay.

Last year, the Legislature passed modest changes to mandate more disclosure of outside income and require lawmakers to record their presence in Albany in order to seek expense reimbursements.

A recent Siena College poll found that 89 percent of New York voters think Albany corruption is a serious problem, and 60 percent support banning outside employment.