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New county ethics law would require disclosure, transparency

A new ethics law approved Thursday for Erie County government forbids county officials and other employees from accepting gifts above "nominal" or token value. Its long list of exceptions were amended to ensure that gifts like free Bills and Sabres tickets may not be accepted.

The County Legislature unanimously approved the new law at its Thursday session, and the county executive has said he will sign it.

"I think we came a long way from what we had," said Legislator Thomas Loughran, D-Buffalo, who co-sponsored the law on the county executive's behalf.

The new law will also:

  • Make it illegal to be a director or officer of any organization that receives county support for at least 10 percent of its expenses;
  • Require elected officials to disclose clients who have business before any county department;
  • Retain provisions making the law applicable to candidates for elected county office and political party leaders;
  • Require elected officials to separately disclose a list of all close relatives employed by any government organization.

Penalties for violating disclosure requirements also were increased to make it possible for violators to be fined up to $20,000 – up from $10,000 – or criminally charged with a Class A misdemeanor.

"We've made disclosure more strict and transparency more clear," said Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, who co-sponsored the law. "That was my goal from the very beginning."

City lawyer Arthur Giacalone raised concerns this week that the new law does not explicitly prohibit conflicts of interest. But after conversations with the county attorney and others, Lorigo and Loughran said they're comfortable those prohibitions are covered under state law and implied in the language of the local law.

Members of the Erie County Board of Ethics raised objections to some of the gift exceptions, resulting in a few amendments. The board also objected to three political appointees from the majority leader, minority leader and Legislature chairman being named to the committee as non-voting members, saying these appointments would politicize a nonpolitical board.

Those provisions remain in the new law.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has said the new law will be clearer, stronger, more transparent and less reliant on judgment calls by the Board of Ethics. It also cleans up and consolidates a patchwork of other county ethics laws from prior years.

"The idea was to create a Code of Ethics that was easier to understand and would give more definitive answers to officials," Poloncarz said.

Just how tough is the proposed Erie County ethics law?

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