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Lawmakers swear ethics reform will become law

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Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders released more details of their agreement on ethics reform and promise it will become law before the session is done. Karen DeWitt reports.

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Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

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Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders formally announced their agreement on ethics reform, but some advocates said the key will be how well the new commission uses the new tools it’s been given to root out corruption.

Governor Cuomo, who made ethics reform one of his top priorities, says the agreement requires "unprecedented disclosure" that will "clean up Albany."

"This goes a long way towards restoring trust in government," said Cuomo.

Under the agreement, penalties for violating lobby and disclosure laws would be increased, and future legislators would have to forfeit their pensions if they are convicted of crimes. Currently elected lawmakers would not have to give up pensions if they get in trouble with the law.

Cuomo said the new requirements represent a “radical departure” from the past, and said some lawmakers may have to make “significant changes” in the way they’ve been doing business.

For the first time a bi-partisan panel, to be known as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, would have the power to investigate the legislature, as well as the governor and state agencies under his control.

The exact formulation of the commission was the subject of intense negotiations between the governor and the legislature over the past weeks. The legislature will get to appoint eight commission members and the executive branch will appoint six.

At least eight members of the board have to agree to an investigation and at least two must be of the same political party. Cuomo said this is to limit the potential for “political witch-hunts” in the future.

Senate Republicans were the last hold outs on the legislation and GOP Majority Leader Dean Skelos thanked the governor’s staff and government reform advocates for their "nudging."

Some government reform advocates said the criteria may be too complicated, and in certain situations just three commission members could block the wishes of 11 commissioners who advocate a probe.

Dick Dadey, with Citizens Union, said that while it’s a landmark agreement, it’s “not a perfect” measure and has the potential to prevent a probe.

“It was trying to set up this Rubiks cube,” Dadey said, “so that all partisan concerns were addressed.”

Under the provisions of the agreement, lawmakers would be required to disclose the names of their business and legal clients, and that information would be posted on the Internet. For years, lawyers and legislators had resisted the disclosure, saying it would violate attorney-client privilege.

Steve Younger, with the New York State Bar Association, said the measure balances the concerns of clients with the public’s right to know.

“The public is going to have a lot more information about what goes on Albany,” said Younger.

In the past few years, numerous lawmakers have been indicted, investigated, convicted of crimes or forced to resign. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, said most are honest but some "stray from propriety."

"Some attempt to cheat the system," Silver said.

David Grandeau, who formerly ran the State Lobbying Commission, a predecessor to the new ethics panel, said it’s not necessarily the new powers that will be important, but how they are used. Grandeau earned a reputation as a tough nonpartisan enforcer of the lobbying laws, which were limited compared to the powers invested in the new commission.

“It’s great to have new tools, and any craftsman wants to have the best tools possible,” said Grandeau, “but the best tools with a lousy craftsman, you’ll end up with hackjob.”

Grandeau said the success or failure of the new commission will depend upon whether the “right” people are appointed and whether do the right thing.

Cuomo and legislators said they hope to have the bill ready in a couple of days and plan to hold a vote before the session ends later in June.

Provisions would not begin to take effect until next January, and the first financial disclosure statements would not be due until 2013.

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