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New NY records show potential conflicts, now what?



ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York officials have stakes in some of the state's biggest companies, pad their retirements with blue-chip stocks in companies they regulate and some continue six-figure jobs on the side with firms plying the very laws they create in Albany.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers have billed new disclosures filed by statewide officials on the value of their outside financial interests as a "historic" advance in combatting conflicts of interest. But after a month of review by good-government groups and news organizations, the new disclosures mostly prompt more questions.

State law says New York officials can't have "any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, or engage in any business or transaction or professional activity or incur any obligation of any nature, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest."

"Unfortunately," said Russ Haven of the New York Public Interest Research Group, "state ethics law doesn't provide a bright-line standard for when a conflict is created by a legislator's financial interests.

"The new ethics filings could and should spur a public discussion about when a conflict arises, whether lawmakers need to recuse themselves on some issues, and ultimately whether it's time to have a full-time legislature with very limited outside business activities," Haven said.

The reports show outside income from jobs and stock holdings in health care companies like Pfizer Inc. and blue chips including General Electric Co. and AT&T Inc., which are regulated by the state. They show investments in New York companies including Corning and Eastman Kodak and reveal some detail of the portfolios held by Albany's millionaire civil servants, including Cuomo.

For example, tobacco companies this year quietly sought a unique break to save them hundreds of millions of dollars when they were sued by smokers' survivors and another bill to raise a fee for wholesalers. The Senate approved them, as the floor was run by Republican Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous, whose retirement portfolio included $90,000 to $175,000 in tobacco stocks. Several other legislators also hold stock in tobacco companies, which contribute thousands of dollars to campaigns.

"I invested in solid companies, American companies, that paid good dividends, and I'm not ashamed to say that," Libous said, adding that he's also voted in favor of higher cigarette taxes and an indoor smoking ban. "It's really hard to be a legislator and not say there are a lot of connecting factors with a whole lot of companies."

When the Trial Lawyers Association opposed efforts to limit lawsuit judgments, the bills were blocked in the Assembly run by Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, who makes up to $450,000 a year in the same line of personal injury law firm.

Silver spokesman Michael Whyland noted outside employment is allowed and not a conflict.

The disclosures also show:

  •  Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos of Long Island makes as much as $250,000 a year in a law firm that specializes in real estate, civil litigation, corporate law and health care, all major areas of state legislative business.
 
  •  Cuomo is worth $1.75 million to $2 million, most of it in a blind trust. He received use of a private jet for a round-trip excursion worth up to $20,000 as a personal gift from his former real estate developer boss, Anthony Farkas, who helped Cuomo amass the personal fortune. Cuomo refuses to discuss the personal trip.
 
  •  Silver's holdings are about $2 million after serving in the Assembly since 1976, the last 19 as the powerful speaker.

"Campaign contributions have absolutely no impact on policy decisions," said Skelos spokesman Scott Reif. "Every bill that comes before the Senate is considered on the merits."

Outside jobs for lawmakers are allowed, unlike in Congress, because New York legislators are technically part time. They are paid a $79,500 base salary.

Bill Samuels, founder of the good-government group The New Roosevelts, said the unrestricted ability of lawmakers to take part-time jobs as lawyers and consultants where they can cash in on their name, title and influence is a big problem.

Former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, for example, awaits retrial in a corruption case in which federal prosecutors claim he used his private consulting business to take in $360,000 in exchange for actions in Albany.

"It's not where we want to be," Samuels said of the disclosures, "but it's clearly progress."


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