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Ethically challenged State Senate tries to avoid accountability by making an issue of Sandra Lee

As diversions go, Republicans in the State Senate have come up with a doozy. They have maneuvered to turn the spotlight on the governor’s live-in partner in an effort to deflect attention away from the ethical swamp in which they troll for money.

Let’s be clear: This is a diversion. It is certainly arguable that domestic partners should be treated as spouses when it comes to applying ethics laws. But it is no more than a possibility that Sandra Lee, the partner of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, would attract money in an effort to influence state policy, while it is beyond dispute that the Senate and Assembly are sewers of ethical filth.

For Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, or any other member of the Senate or Assembly to try to prevent the imposition of new ethical rules by making an issue of Cuomo’s living arrangements is beyond seamy. A former Senate leader was charged with federal crimes a few years ago – Joseph Bruno was ultimately acquitted although he was plainly abusing his office – and the previous Assembly leader, Sheldon Silver, was recently charged with federal crimes.

Meanwhile, rank-and-file members of the chambers have been accused or convicted of crimes with something approaching clockwork regularity in recent years, usually because of financial improprieties. And U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is still on the hunt, continuing the investigations that led to Silver’s indictment and almost certainly to the decision of former Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, not to seek re-election.

It is instructive, though, that the diversion play is coming from the Senate, tenuously held by Republicans who, no doubt, fear any change that could endanger their majority. They are dressing up their opposition in a finely tailored suit, it is true, but the fundamental and inescapable fact is that they are seeking to retain the Legislature’s unethical standards of conduct for political advantage.

Meanwhile, the Assembly – which is solidly Democratic – has agreed with Cuomo to a set of ethical reforms that make a solid start on one of the most contentious problems in government – outside income. That’s what the Senate evidently does not want to do: disclose other sources of income that could – and often enough does – come from people seeking to influence state policy.

And, in that regard, live-in partners are just as likely to be solicited as spouses are. Few people dispute the need, intrusive though it is, for their income to be disclosed along with that of their elected partner. So, Republicans have something more than a fig leaf to cover their opposition to ethical reform.

While there has been no suggestion of any ethical conflict regarding the income of Cuomo’s partner, a TV food show host, controversies have arisen in other states regarding domestic partners. The states of Alaska and Maine require disclosure of the income of domestic partners, as does New York City. So, it’s not a crazy idea. It’s just a diversionary one.

Here’s the strategy that will work for Skelos and his caucus. They should agree to the disclosure legislation unveiled last week by Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie. In that way they can demonstrate to voters that they understand their moral imperative to act, and they can also then claim the high ground in pushing for disclosure by all domestic partners.

That way it won’t look to voters as though they are just trying to avoid accountability by tweaking Cuomo. As it stands now, though, that is exactly what it looks like.