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Poloncarz seeks major changes to Erie County ethics law

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz wants to repeal Erie County’s ethics law and replace it with one that he calls cleaner, clearer and tougher. The law governing ethical behavior for all county public officials and elected leaders has had a few minor adjustments over the years – including last year – but has otherwise been largely unchanged since 1989.

Poloncarz on Tuesday recommended changes he says would make it clear that ethics violators can face misdemeanor charges and higher civil penalties. He also wants to strengthen the Board of Ethics, clarify what constitutes a gift to public employees, and require more financial disclosure by all employees.

“We need to strengthen the law,” Poloncarz said. “We have opportunities to create a stronger Board of Ethics, give the Board of Ethics more power and clean up what happened in 2015.”

Poloncarz will speak about his ethics initiative in his State of the County address Thursday.

Last year, the County Legislature made it easier for the Board of Ethics to continue investigating officials who leave county employment.

Last month, acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. proposed sweeping changes in the law to crack down on patronage hiring, fire any county official convicted of a crime, and limit campaign contributions, among other proposals.

On Tuesday, Poloncarz and Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, announced plans to further revise the ethics code. Lorigo wants to amend the existing code to require elected officials to disclose if they have family members working in government, serving on government boards, or active as political party officers. Elected officials would also be required to disclose any activities related to lobbying firms.

Lorigo called Poloncarz’s recommendations “a good start” but said his plan promotes greater transparency.

Poloncarz said his suggestions fix errors the Legislature put into the law in 2015, and reflect his desire to strengthen the Board of Ethics and eliminate vague wording in the law.

The Poloncarz plan would:

• Prohibit any county official or employee from working for another county municipality.

• Require county officials to disclose if they have been hired or retained by a third party within seven days to determine if any conflict exists.

• Require elected officials and candidates for elected office to disclose the names of any clients they or their firms have if the clients do business with any department of Erie County.

• Make clear that a Class A misdemeanor can be assessed for any ethics law violation, except failure to file financial disclosure forms. Those would be subject to a fine of up to $20,000, increased from $10,000.

• Provide more detailed information about what qualifies as a “gift” to public officials.

• Create a full-time, salaried executive director position for the Ethics Board. The executive director would be appointed by the county executive, subject to legislative confirmation, for a five-year term.Minority Leader Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst, is submitting legislation on Poloncarz’s behalf in the Legislature.

“I think it’s overdue, and I think it’s a realistic approach to ethics reform,” Loughran said.

Though Flaherty was the first to recommend major changes to the county’s ethics law, Poloncarz and Lorigo said many of Flaherty’s recommendations exceed the county’s authority. Poloncarz said many of Flaherty’s recommendations are superseded by state and civil service laws or are already covered by existing laws.

Flaherty disagreed, saying that county laws limiting campaign finance contributions and closing loopholes do not fall solely within the state’s purview. But he called anything that gives his office greater ability to prosecute ethical misconduct a good thing. He said he’d be happy to work with the Legislature and county executive to improve the ethics law.

Ethical questions have emerged in recent months. In January, Lorigo attempted to serve as a West Seneca town prosecutor and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer but gave up the appointments after receiving two legal opinions stating that he could not work as both a legislator and a town appointee. In December, Legislator Patrick B. Burke, D-Buffalo, was accused of backing a Legislature proposal to benefit health care workers represented by the Communication Workers of America at the same time he worked as a consultant for the union.

Flaherty’s interest in reforming the ethics code appears to have been sparked after the Board of Ethics found that Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw violated the code in 2014 when he asked county-connected businessmen to cover nearly $12,000 in tuition costs for him to attend a Harvard University business program.