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Panepinto asked to ‘come clean’ on lobbying bid that could benefit his law firm

Freshman State Sen. Marc C. Panepinto is facing his first political firestorm after local Republicans demanded he “come clean” on efforts to lobby a state agency for policy changes that critics say could benefit his private law practice.

It all stems from a Monday story in the New York Daily News indicating that soon after taking office in January, the Buffalo Democrat pressed Workers’ Compensation Board officials to reconsider plans for altering or reducing reimbursements to health care professionals. The Daily News also reported that Panepinto’s office did not respond to questions about whether he had queried the state’s Legislative Ethics Commission about any potential conflict of interest posed by his efforts.

Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy now seeks an explanation from Panepinto.

“It didn’t take Sen. Panepinto long at all to show his true colors in Albany,” Langworthy said Monday. “According to the Daily News, he was caught red handed working to feather his own nest by lobbying for a law firm that pays him over $1 million per year.”

Langworthy said that while Panepinto’s staff did not respond to some questions, he “can’t dodge his constituents.”

“Residents of his district deserve to know: Did he seek approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission, as required, before he moved to lobby for his law firm and their labor pals?” Langworthy asked.

Panepinto on Monday did not return a call from The Buffalo News seeking comment. He also did not show up Monday at a City Hall ceremony hosted by Mayor Byron W. Brown attended by virtually all of the area’s Democratic legislators.

A Panepinto spokeswoman told the Daily News, however, that neither the senator nor his firm benefited financially from his efforts against the proposed changes.

A partner in the Buffalo law firm of Dolce Panepinto, the Daily News cited records indicating the senator earned more than $1 million last year working for a law firm that its web site says recovered more than $8.5 million for injured workers in the first few months of 2015.

In its most recent quarterly report, the Daily News said Dolce Panepinto highlighted that Panepinto banded together with other legislators “to successfully defeat this regulatory barrier to quality health care for injured workers.” The medical community and organized labor opposed the revisions proposed by the Workers’ Compensation Board, arguing that they would make doctors reluctant to take on such cases.

But the Daily News also said that while the changes would not drastically alter the Panepinto firm’s earnings, the efforts likely endeared it to unions and doctors that refer cases. Panepinto won a tough election in 2014 with significant financial backing from labor, especially teachers’ unions.

Lisa Reid, executive director of the Legislative Ethics Commission, cited confidentiality in declining to comment on whether the senator had sought advice on interceding with the Workers’ Compensation Board. Albany sources say the idea of confidentiality is to encourage legislators to seek such advice without fear of public disclosure.

Panepinto was not involved in any voting for the new workers’ compensation rules. But the commission’s website offers generic guidance for legislators to determine if outside interest will be affected by any official act.

“The test to be applied is whether any impact on his outside interest which results from his sponsorship or voting on state legislation is similar to that realized by other members of the business, profession, occupation or group affected,” commission writes. “If so, he may sponsor or vote on such legislation.”

Panepinto’s potential conflict between influencing public policy and representing clients linked to organized labor gains even more scrutiny following the arrests earlier this year of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos. Both were charged by the Manhattan U.S. attorney with public corruption stemming from their outside work as lawyers. Since then, even more calls have stemmed from good-government groups seeking more disclosure of private business interests by state legislators.

That prompts Albany good-government types like Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, to urge legislators like Panepinto to exercise “an abundance of caution” in such situations.

“At least seek the advice and tell the public that you’re willing to operate within the boundaries of the commission,” he said, “and be considerate of these issues given where Albany is at.”

He also said while the Legislative Ethics Commission can set its own confidentiality guidelines, Panepinto faces no such restrictions and should be willing to discuss whether he sought advice.

“That’s a simple way to solve this problem,” Horner said.

Panepinto also faced ethical scrutiny during his 2014 campaign as a result of pleading guilty in 2001 to misdemeanor election fraud charges for collecting false signatures on designating petitions.