Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Season’s Greetings

About this time every year – back when I was head of the state Lobbying Commission – I would do something special to get me in the holiday mood.

No, I wouldn’t bake cookies or hang mistletoe.

Instead, my staff would create a file on the hot topics for the New Year and begin the process of keeping tabs on who was lobbying for whom on all sides of an issue. As part of this effort, I’d collect interesting news articles and make notes on what I might have heard on the street.

I was reminded of this old habit of mine the other day when I read an article in the New York Times about the efforts of energy companies to influence the Cuomo administration on the matter of fracking for natural gas.

As I read the piece, something triggered a mini alarm in my mind. The article was all about the gas companies and how they were outspending the enviros. But it occurred to me that most of the ads I’d seen on the fracking issue in previous months were anti-drilling. In fact while I was writing the blog I heard on ad for the following group

Keep in mind that as an enforcer of ethics laws, you’re supposed to be impartial on the policy questions. That is, you’re not supposed to take a side pro or con on an issue.
What I would have done back in the day was look into the matter to see if all the groups sponsoring ads were properly registered to lobby.

Here’s the key thing: I always tried to avoid the “gotcha game.” I really didn’t want to come down on people for missing a filing deadline. I tried to use good judgment in these situations. Was it an honest mistake? Or was someone actually trying to avoid their responsibilities under the law?

On this point there’s an odd dichotomy: The natural assumption is that big bad industry group’s act in insidious ways while do-gooder groups make innocent mistakes. Maybe, and maybe not. To my mind, the only way for an ethics enforcer to proceed is to be skeptical, but not cynical, about everyone.

Back to the environmental groups. I don’t know that anyone has done anything wrong, but as an ethics enforcer, I’d check it out. I want to know who exactly was funding all the ads on this issue and whether everyone associated with the cause was properly registered.

Why does it matter? Because disclosure is the flu shot of government. Does it always work? No but your chances of staying healthy increase dramatically.

Now if there was a functioning state ethics and lobbying panel today, its executive director would be proactively looking at the big issue areas for the New Year. Who’s lobbying for whom? What is the nature and extent of lobbying activities on drilling, gaming, the millionaire’s tax, redistricting, etc.

This is what should be occurring, but, for the hundredth time, it isn’t because there’s still no state ethics and lobbying panel.

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