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Itís the fox guarding the henhouse. It doesnít work.

Leaders still apart on ethics reform

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One of the top issues of the post budget session is ethics reform.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says he and Governor Cuomo have an understanding on legislation. But the governor says he's not quite there yet. Karen Dewitt reports.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

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Speaker Silver says he and Governor Cuomo agree on three basic tenets of ethics reform. Silver says he supports beefing up an investigative commission that would have greater powers to investigate charges of corruption. He says he also backs lawmaker’s disclosure of outside income.

All state legislators are part time, and the Speaker is a partner in a major personal injury law firm. Though he says none of his clients currently have business before the state, he believes that those connections should be made public, whether it’s “an accountant, an adverting executive, or a lawn mowing service”.   

Silver maintains, though, that the legislature still needs it’s own ethics commission, separate from the governor’s branch. He admits that the current entity has had a poor track record, failing to follow up on corruption charges and slow to punish offenders, but says there are certain functions that only a separate legislative body can perform, such as guidance over what events are okay to attend without violating the state’s strict new gift bans.

“I’ll get an invitation, that I’m invited to speak, I’m invited to attend a dinner, Silver explained. “I will immediately refer it to my counsel.”

“Invariably I’ll be told ‘go, don’t eat’,” Silver said with a chuckle.

Government reform groups say in order for there to be true change, one independent ethics commission is essential. Barbara Bartoletti is with the League of Women Voters says there are too many conflicts when government officials police themselves. 

“It’s the fox guarding the henhouse,” Bartoletti said. “It doesn’t work.”

Governor Cuomo offers a slightly different account of progress on ethics reforms talks. He says while he and the Speaker agree on some key points, he’s not calling it an agreement yet. The governor, saying in Albany, “it takes three to tango”, says there’s no consensus until Senate Republicans sign on.

“There’s no agreement until there’s a final agreement,” said Cuomo. “And there is no final agreement.”

Cuomo concedes that talks with Assembly Democrats have progressed further than discussions with Senate Republicans so far.

Senator Skelos, in a statement, says he'll work “night and day” to achieve a three-way deal on ethics reform, and criticized the Speaker for attempting to negotiate the issue in the media.

Cuomo recently achieved the first on time budget agreement in several years. One factor was his professed willingness to use a new tool developed under former Governor David Paterson’s Administration.

Cuomo said that if the budget wasn’t done on time, he’d force the legislature to pass his spending plan in the very first spending extender.

Cuomo, who campaigned on a promise to “clean up Albany”, has a similar weapon to use in the ethics reform fight. He’s said he’s willing to form a Moreland Act Commission to investigate the legislature. Cuomo alluded to that option Wednesday.  

“We’ll be getting ethics reform one way or the other,” Cuomo said.

In the wake of numerous indictments, convictions, imprisonments, resignations and even expulsions of lawmakers, such a probe could be worrisome to lawmakers that more embarrassing scandals could be uncovered. Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, says that threat may help spur an agreement. She says when Cuomo was Attorney General for four years, he did not hesitate to employ investigative powers.

“The governor had a hammer during the budget process,” Bartoletti said. “I think that’s his hammer during the ethics discussions.”

And perhaps with the full knowledge of Cuomo’s hammer, Speaker Silver predicts that an ethics bill will come before the end of the session.

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