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Spitzer, Legislature OK new ethics rules Despite loopholes, deal limits lobbyists' access

A series of new ethics rules, the most sweeping in a generation for a State Capitol tarred by a series of recent corruption cases, was agreed to Wednesday. The deal enacts strict bans on gifts from lobbyists to legislators and other officials and slows down Albany's infamous revolving-door lobbying industry.

The agreement by Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer and legislative leaders also includes a ban on all elected officials appearing in taxpayer-funded advertisements and on senior officials and lawmakers accepting payments for speeches. It also ends the days of special interest groups flying lawmakers to the Caribbean and other destinations for a mix of meetings and golf outings. Gone, also, are the nightly lobbyist-funded dinners that for decades have been a staple of the Albany restaurant scene.

Maximum penalties for breaking the ethics provisions will rise from $10,000 now to $40,000. The rules apply to all state workers, including those covered by current collective-bargaining agreements.

But the deal includes a number of Albany-style loopholes. Lawmakers, for instance, still can tap into their campaign accounts to fund junkets, and the Legislature beat back an attempt to significantly bolster the strength of a panel charged with overseeing the ethics of lawmakers.

The agreement also includes a new office -- the state Commission on Public Integrity -- that combines the current duties of two agencies that now monitor the state's booming lobbying industry and the ethical activities of 250,000 state employees. The new superagency, though, will be firmly controlled by Spitzer, which led some government watchdogs to wonder how independent it will be.

The deal, facing certain legislative approval, covers only state employees -- leaving out hundreds of thousands of people employed by local governments and school districts.

Spitzer, who campaigned last fall on a pledge to overhaul the workings of Albany, called the package of new ethics provisions "a significant step forward." He defended putting control of the new ethics and lobbying agency under his control -- he gets seven of the 13 appointees -- by saying the structure will make him directly accountable for its success.

But one watchdog group expressed fears the new agency is a way for some officials to get rid of David Grandeau, the current head of the lobbying agency, who has butted heads with Spitzer as well as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, and State Senate Major Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick.

"This is eliminating an important watchdog with something that may or may not do the job," Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said of the new agency.

The deal left watchdog groups somewhat split. While NYPIRG raised concerns, the League of Women Voters supported the whole package. Consumers Union, meanwhile, said officials missed an opportunity to create a single, independent agency to be the ethics monitor for both executive and legislative branch employees. At present, there are two such agencies, and the legislative ethics panel has long been criticized as ineffective.

Legislators and outside groups said more still needs to be done to enact true, sweeping reform in Albany, including an overhaul of campaign finance laws that critics believe now lead to a "pay to play" environment, the cancellation of pensions for government officials convicted of crimes related to their office and restrictions on use of campaign funds for what amount to largely personal purposes.

Some of the reforms announced Wednesday mirror those already enacted earlier this month by Spitzer for workers who serve at the pleasure of the governor. Lawmakers did not, though, go along with some measures, such as prohibiting government employers from asking prospective employees their political affiliation.

Lobbyists who violate some of the new rules, such as the gift ban, can be fined for the first occurrence and then suspended upon committing a second violation; if they lobby while suspended, they can then be barred for four years. The new deal prohibits all gifts except nominal ones, like baseball caps given away at an event.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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