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Cuomo signs ethics law that watchdog groups pan

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law Wednesday legislation that adds new ethics and campaign finance restrictions.

Government watchdog groups, though, have criticized the legislation for what they say is a failure to address conditions that fuel some of Albany’s corruption cases in recent years. They say it is is an attack on the activities of charitable organizations that have not been caught up in the ethics problems at the Capitol.

The legislation includes restrictions on independent expenditure groups, or Super PACs, intended to reduce coordination with a political candidate’s campaign. The package also permits pensions to be stripped from public officials convicted of wrongdoing related to their government jobs.

Critics, though, say last-minute provisions negotiated in secret at the Capitol also expands the government’s reach into donation lists for certain charitable organizations – a move they say will put a chilling effect on charitable contributions. Further, they say the provisions seek to address a situation that has not been the focus of prosecutors’ attention.

The governor did not address the critiques in signing the bill, instead focusing on the restrictions to Super PACs, which Cuomo said has been a “torrent of dark money” into the political process by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United.

“New York is taking aggressive action to restore the people’s faith in government and increase accountability and transparency in the electoral process,’’ Cuomo said in a statement.

The final agreement, contained in a bill passed in the middle of the night on the last day of the 2016 session in June, did not include provisions Cuomo had sought at the beginning of the year.

Critics fault the bill for failing to address problems that have arisen in several of high-profile corruption cases, including the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

The bill was also approved with a “message of necessity,” avoiding the three-day “aging” process that permits legislation to undergo public scrutiny.

Only two senators voted against the bill.

Five groups, including the New York Public Interest Research Group and New York Common Cause, wrote Cuomo on Tuesday urging him to veto the bill. They said the legislation contains “substantive and technical flaws” that were the “direct result of a secretive process, a process all too common in Albany.’’ The deal, hammered out by Cuomo and the top leaders of the Legislature, “causes more problems than it solves,’’ the groups said in their letter to the governor.

The groups are especially critical of provisions that require 501(c)(4) organizations to disclose financial support they receive from non-profit groups that cannot engage in political activities. The law calls on donor disclosure if “in-kind” assistance is given by a charitable group, though it is vague about what kinds of services that might entail.

But the watchdog groups, maintain the donation from one organization to another can have nothing to do with lobbying activities and inhibit the ability of a social welfare organization “to engage in constitutionally protected speech.’’


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