Tuesday, September 27, 2011

“Aw, Come On, Dave”

I get this comment a lot. People say: “Why do you get so worked up about things. Does it really matter?”

I always respond by saying that ethics in government does matter, and it starts with those who enforce the laws. We need aggressive and fair enforcement to keep people honest. Unfortunately, we have nothing. That’s right, as I’ve written before and will continue to write, there is no functioning state integrity panel at this time.
And what difference does it make? Well, each and every day there are meetings and other interactions between government officials and those who want to influence their decisions. This process is supposed to proceed according to certain rules and regulations, but it is not happening properly.

In this regard, I recently reviewed Governor Cuomo’s new “Citizens Connect” website and guess what I found? Many of the people who met with the governor and his staff aren’t registered as lobbyists, and yet they appear to have been engaged in lobbying activity.

Here’s one example:
On June 13, the Governor met with Brian Ellner of the Human Rights Campaign, Mark Solomon from Freedom to Marry and Cathy Marino-Thomas of Marriage Equality NY. None of these individuals is registered as a lobbyist. Now it is possible that their activities did not meet the threshold necessary to lobby, but someone needs to check. (Key questions include: What subsequent meetings did these individuals have? Did they make the rounds with lawmakers?)

This particular meeting in the governor’s office also included Jennifer Cunningham from SKD Knickerbocker. I remember Jennifer telling the media she would not be lobbying this governor. Now maybe she was just present at the meeting and didn’t “advocate,” but, again, someone needs to check.

Why does this matter? Because the law is the law. It is there for a purpose and that purpose is to reveal the forces seeking to influence the decisions of elected officials. The law does not differentiate between lobbying for historic civil rights for gays and lesbians and lobbying for a tobacco company.

To the contrary, the law holds (or should hold) everyone accountable to the same standard. But this isn’t happening in New York. As a result, we may have a situation in which the lack of proper oversight and enforcement has opened the door for “special interests” being placed ahead of the public interest.

I can hear my friends in the Cuomo administration now: “Aw, come on, Dave. You’re talking about us. We ALWAYS adhere to the highest ethical standards.”

Yes. The Spitzer people, who all hailed from Harvard, Princeton and Yale (and made sure we all knew it), said that, too. And look how that turned out.

“Dave, you’re getting worked up again.”

Yes, I am. I spent just 20 minutes on this website and found several potential violations of the law. This makes me wonder what else is going on? What other violations are occurring? It also reinforces something I’ve learned since I left the old Lobby Commission -- sometimes people just make an innocent mistake. When they do, it’s up to authorities to differentiate between the innocent oversight and the intentional violation.
No, I don’t think the gay advocates and Jennifer are bad people. Nor do I think they meant to do anything wrong, and they may not have. But their conduct needs to be reviewed along with everyone else.

It is imperative that the governor and legislative leaders move as soon as possible to establish a new integrity panel. The lack of such a panel is undermining the integrity of state government.

This matters. It really does.

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