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Financial ties that bind . . . lawmakers Potential conflicts exist for state legislators, given their varied businesses and investments

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno says an FBI investigation will show he has avoided conflicts of interest while in office, but potential conflicts are a fact of life for New York's legislators, given their varied businesses and investments.

A 2004 report showed that four of every 10 lawmakers sat on a legislative committee with authority over their professional or business interests. And one of every three lawmakers had financial ties to businesses or organizations that lobby state government, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

For instance, State Sen. Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, sits on the Senate Health Committee while owning stock in pharmaceutical firms and health care companies.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver invests in, among other things, a fuel-cell company that has been helped by state grants and incentives.

Syracuse-area Sen. John DeFrancisco heads the Judiciary Committee while maintaining an active law practice.

Legislators also face conflicts outside their committees.

For example, Sen. Dale Volker, R-Depew, sat privately with county lawmakers seeking solutions to the 2005 budget crisis while his wife earned a County Legislature paycheck as one of its staff members.

Should elected leaders have no financial stake in their states and communities? Or is it better for them to have that connection to the state economy?

The job of a state legislator, which pays a base salary of $79,500 a year plus perks, is a part-time position that accommodates other endeavors.

Bruno agreed with that last week when revealing the FBI is investigating his business dealings. "I always said I would earn my living outside the Legislature so that I wasn't dependent on this income," he told reporters in Albany.

>Record spent by lobbyists

Yet state lawmakers are uniquely positioned to influence personal fortunes, including their own fortunes or those of their outside employers. That's why special interests spent $149 million last year on lobbying in New York. It was yet another record and more than twice what they spent at the start of the decade, according to the state Temporary Commission on Lobbying.

"Something that happens in state politics often is that you have lawmakers legislating in direct conflicts of interest with the jobs they have and the assets they own," said Alex Knott, the Center for Public Integrity's political editor. "Sometimes these outside interests help them to understand the legislative area better. But you also have to wonder whether that legislation is being tailored to help out themselves or their company."

The Center for Public Integrity said that when Bruno helped change the rent-control landscape in New York City to benefit landlords and developers in 1997, he was among the dozens of legislators who know what it's like to be a landlord or developer. He owned a 25 percent stake in a development company, First Grafton of Glens Falls.

Financial disclosure forms show that dozens of lawmakers make money in the real estate industry. (Buffalo Democrat Sam Hoyt and Niagara County Republican Sen. George Maziarz, for example, have collected rental income off properties each has owned in downtown Albany.)

Dozens of legislators also have invested in the industries that lobby them: Drug makers, telecommunications companies, banks, insurers.

Paul A. Tokasz of Cheektowaga, the Assembly majority leader who will retire at year's end, has disclosed for years that he works as a broker for the Hatch-Leonard-Naples insurance agency, which merged last year with First Niagara Risk Management. The insurance industry lobbies Albany and is regulated by state government.

>Rath sees no conflict

Rath invests in an array of companies, many health related, though she sits on the Health Committee. She sees no problem because for the most part she is unaware of what stocks she owns.

"I have this account at Merrill Lynch that generates everything via computer," she said. "What they are buying and selling, I really don't have any idea what it is. There is really no crossover between what's there and what I am doing on the Health Committee . . . I don't see any conflicts of interest because I don't even know what drug companies are in this account."

Volker's wife, Carol, worked for the Erie County Legislature for 12 years and was a clerk-typist in a district office when county government went into free fall during the 2004-05 budget crisis.

One Saturday in March, county lawmakers met privately with some state legislators, including Volker, to see if they could wrench more money out of Albany and save hundreds of workers from unemployment. In the end, the effort failed.

How did Sen. Volker draw the line between household concerns and his duty to safeguard taxpayer dollars -- on that day and when handling numerous other requests from the County Legislature over the years?

Volker did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

"She was the best part-time worker I ever had," said County Legislator Barry A. Weinstein, R-Amherst, who had hired Carol Volker in his district office, then laid her off because of the budget crisis. "Carol really liked her job, but I don't think it ever was important to them financially."

He said she now works for Assemblyman Mike Cole, R-Alden.

>Financial disclosure

State lawmakers are required each May to disclose their personal financial interests and sources of household income. But when it comes to stocks, they need mention only those they own on Dec. 31. A lawmaker can sell a stock Dec. 30, and buy it back Jan. 2 to avoid public disclosure.

The loophole doesn't let everything through. When making more than $1,000 on the sale, legislators must disclose the income and the stock sold, according to the Legislative Ethics Committee.

Bruno in March 2006 reported that he works as a consultant to the Connecticut-based Winthrop Corp., the parent company of Wright Investors Service securities, and for Capital Business Consultants LLC, which operates from the address of his Mountain View Farm in Rensselaer County, where he raises thoroughbred horses.

Bruno this year reported that First Grafton, the development company, had been sold. But First Grafton, which included prominent Albany lobbyist James Featherstonaugh as an investor, received a subpoena as part of the FBI probe, as did Capital Business Consultants, The New York Times reported Thursday.

The Times reported the probe involves Bruno's personal affairs and how they mesh with his role as Senate majority leader, which makes him one of Albany's three most powerful men.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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