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Schneiderman calls for ‘transformational’ ethics law changes in Albany

ALBANY – The state government’s top lawyer said Monday night that Albany’s trail of scandals must bring major changes to the Capitol instead of the usual “tinkering” responses, and that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should hold firm to his no on-time budget threat unless lawmakers agree to “transformational” ethics law changes.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, in a speech Monday evening in Manhattan, said the recent federal charges against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver should serve as a genuine wake-up call for ethics law improvements, and not the “marginal reforms” that governors and lawmakers have put in place four separate times since 2005.

“Corruption has been a feature of government in the Empire State for a long time,” said Schneiderman as he told a Citizens Union audience of a story about Teddy Roosevelt, when he was a state lawmaker in 1882, being amazed at the role of campaign contributions and special interests at the Capitol.

Schneiderman’s proposals Monday include a ban on outside employment by state legislators linked with a “significant” pay hike to the $79,500 legislative base pay which has not increased since 1999. He said state lawmakers should be paid somewhere between the $112,500 salary for a New York City Council member to $174,000 paid to members of Congress. He also backed calls by government watchdog groups for campaign finance rule changes to close multiple loopholes that largely benefit incumbents. He also wants to increase from two years to four years the term of state lawmakers.

“Ending the two-year cycle where legislators are engaged in nonstop re-election fundraising and campaigning will attract more high-quality candidates into government,” Schneiderman said, according to prepared remarks his office made available upon request.

Schneiderman, who enjoys frosty relations with Cuomo, did not name anyone specifically but said that scandals in recent years have been followed by ethics law fixes that “largely tinker at the margins.” Those, he said, were followed up by news conferences “declaring that the problem has been solved.” Instead, he said, changes to the state ethics law over the past decade have been “marginal reforms” that have allowed “business as usual to continue.”

Schneiderman said his office does not have “original jurisdiction,” meaning it must get a referral from another agency to launch an ethics probe. He said that his office, working with Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli since 2011, have together brought more than 60 cases against state and local officials.

Schneiderman said he has also asked Cuomo to give him “general” referral powers to more easily investigate ethical abuses in Albany, but that Cuomo has denied the requests even though Cuomo sought them, Schneiderman added, when he was attorney general before becoming governor.

The attorney general said that “transformational” reform is now needed. His other proposals outlined Monday night included replacing the current per diem system for lawmakers with one where actual costs are reimbursed. He said lawmakers should be given more “equitable” office and staff allotments, and he again called for a public financing system. Schneiderman said loopholes should be closed, such as those that allow wealthy individuals to create limited liability corporations to get around campaign donation limits, and said housekeeping accounts – which he said are “barely regulated slush funds” – should be shut down for political parties and legislators.

While Schneiderman credited Cuomo with pushing ethics law changes, he said the governor should hold the budget adoption hostage to “even bolder reforms.”

Schneiderman served in the State Senate from 1999 through 2010. “I was appalled by much of what I saw in Albany. I rebelled, and had my district redrawn, and my bills killed, as a result of that rebellion,” the Democrat said.