Ethics reform in Erie County

The cascading ethical and criminal problems coming out of Albany, highlighted most recently by the convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos for using their offices for personal gain, have raised the attention of New York State residents quite a bit. Although a recent Siena College poll indicates that the top priorities among New York voters remain education, taxes and jobs, corruption problems and the need to improve the ethics of public officials draw considerable interest too.

Pretty much everyone, except maybe some state legislators, is for ethics reform. That includes acting Erie County District Attorney Michael Flaherty, who this past Monday announced his own version of ethics reform, right here in Erie County. Here are highlights from Flaherty’s proposals to amend the County Code of Ethics, along with some issues that the proposals raise:

  • Expand the definition of “interest” to “financial interest” and cover lawyers working with firms with financial interests in county government. At this time Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo and Legislator Peter Savage are the only lawyers in the Legislature. Mark Poloncarz is a lawyer but does not practice. Is this directed at Lorigo and/or Savage?
  • Expand the definition of a “political party official,” which would potentially bring in many additional conflict situations that would be covered by the County Ethics Code.
  • Limit campaign contributions from entities and individuals conducting business with the county, suggesting no more than $5,000 for a countywide campaign and $500 for a legislative campaign. There is a basic question about whether a county can, on its own, establish campaign contribution limits that are different from state law (Election Law, Section 14-114). Flaherty’s suggestions are not very significant. There is already a $5,000 aggregated annual limit on corporate contributions in New York State. The state law also limits contributions to 5 cents per registered voter in most elections. The largest total enrollment of any Erie County Legislature district (District 8) is 59,000 voters, which translates to a total limit under state law of a little less than $3,000 in a general election campaign; limits in primary elections would be much smaller. There are all sorts of loopholes in campaign finances relating to the ease in creating and exploiting limited liability corporations in New York, but that can only be resolved with state legislation. Maybe Senator Michael Ranzenhofer will let reform legislation out of his committee this year.
  • While Flaherty is at it, how about restrictions or limitations on how much assistant DA’s can contribute to their employer’s campaign account? As a previous post noted, a large portion of Flaherty’s non-loan campaign receipts came from donations by his staff.
  • Flaherty’s proposal also invites questions about the $40,000 loan he has accepted for his campaign from his Finance Chairman, James Eagan. Loans that are not repaid by Election Day convert to donations. The limit for donations in a countywide Democratic primary this year will be about $14,000. This means at least $26,000 of Eagan’s loan needs to be repaid by primary election day. If Flaherty is so concerned about contribution limits, why did he accept such a large loan from Eagan, and when does he plan to repay it?
  • Make it a misdemeanor for a former county employee to appear before any board, agency or court on a matter in which the former employee participated during their tenure in county government. This makes sense, but is it really an issue? I don’t recall ever hearing about such a conflict in Erie County government. It looks like a solution looking for a problem.
  • Prohibit Board of Elections employees from circulating election petitions. Only the two Election Commissioners rule on the legitimacy of petitions. The rest of the staff play more of a clerical role in the BOE’s petition process. Should assistant DA’s also be prohibited from circulating petitions since they might be involved in some legal proceedings on the subject?
  • Prohibit any appointment of a political party official to any legislative or executive position at any agency, board or government authority. Flaherty characterizes the potential political appointees as unqualified. Since most such positions are unpaid and only perform an advisory or ministerial role, does this really matter?
  • Prohibit the hiring of the relatives of political party officials to end the “friends and family” patronage machine in Erie County. Flaherty is really cutting this proposal with a very finely sharpened knife. If you have friends or relatives involved in politics, but they are not “political party officials,” would that be alright? This proposal certainly qualifies for some sort of chutzpah award, since a list of the staff of the Erie County District Attorney’s office over many decades has read like a “who’s who” of politically connected families, including, I might add, the present interim District Attorney.
  • Prohibit elected officials from any and all employment with entities and individuals which have a financial interest with Erie County. Legislators Patrick Burke (union consulting) and Joseph Lorigo (West Seneca Town Prosecutor) are the only known county elected officials holding or trying to hold such positions at this time. Is this directed at them? Since the DA must sign off in some fashion on town prosecutors, Flaherty could take care of the Lorigo issue by simply announcing that he would not approve of Lorigo’s appointment in West Seneca.
  • Flaherty proposes that if you are convicted of a crime and you are a county elected or appointed official, you will lose your job. He says that he is recommending this because there is no process to deal with this “under the current law.” Section 3, subsection 1-a of the state Public Officers Law, however, states:

1-a. (i) No person shall be capable of holding a civil office who shall stand convicted of a felony defined in article two hundred or four hundred ninety-six or section 195.20 of the penal law.  (ii) Any individual who stands convicted of a misdemeanor defined in article two hundred, article four hundred ninety-six or section 195.00 of the penal law may not hold civil office for a period of five years from the date of conviction …