Reigning In Ny Lobbyists

05.18.12 | Bob Price

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics is developing agency rules to implement the state's new ethics and lobbying law, which the governor himself proposed.

The commission rules could force further disclosure by all lobbying groups, including the Committee to Save New York, created shortly after Cuomo's election win in 2009. The committee of CEOs and business groups has amassed more than $17 million in donations, most in six- and seven-figure blocs from unidentified individuals.

While the lobbying group has refused so far to identify its donors, spokesman Michael McKeon said it will comply with any laws and regulations requiring disclosure.

"The only reason any of these groups have to disclose is because of the governor's law the Legislature passed last year," Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto noted.

The 2011 Clean Up Albany Act created the ethics commission. It includes the new requirements of lobbying activities and requires more disclosure of lawmakers' private income.

Depending on how it understands the law, the ethics commission could adopt rules that require the Committee to Save New York to disclose only donors who contributed since Jan. 1 or, at the most, since June 2011 after the group had already received most of the contributions. In effect, many donors who contributed to benefit Cuomo and trumpet his policies in TV ads far in excess of campaign contribution limits would remain anonymous.

The ethics commission could weigh whether future donors would be exempt under a provision of the state law that allows groups with tax-exempt status under federal law to keep the names of their donors private.

In addition, donors could be shielded if there is a "substantial likelihood" that identifying them would lead to "harm, threats, harassment, or reprisals" to them or individuals or property associated with them. That argument has been made in the past for civil rights and abortion rights groups out of fear of reprisals against backers.

Friday is the final day the ethics commission is taking written comments. The panel has scheduled a June 7 public hearing, and is to determine the disclosure requirements for use in required reports from lobbying groups starting July 15.

The New York Public Interest Research Group has said the Committee to Save New York operates like super PACs, which have been criticized for spending millions of dollars to influence voters without having to disclose who their donors are.

The Committee to Save New York reported receiving more than $17.4 million, according to the IRS tax returns the lobbying group has released in accordance with state law to preserve its nonprofit status. The names of the donors are blacked out in those documents.

The committee uses Cuomo's name and image while putting political spin on his accomplishments, including saying his 2012 budget had no tax increases. Cuomo and the Legislature approved a millionaire tax in December that provided $2 billion more in spending for the budget. The governor and lawmakers call it a tax break because it includes a $200 to $400 tax cut for middle class families.

Cuomo has publicly criticized super PACs as part of his proposal to reform campaign finance. He has not commented on the Committee to Save New York, which is forbidden by law from coordinating its advertising and other lobbying with Cuomo and his campaign.

The committee has doled out millions to out-of-state companies, including $9.7 million to ASGK Public Strategies, a public relations firm based in Chicago that purchased in-state ads. ASGK was founded by David Axelrod, who left the firm to advise presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Cuomo was Clinton's housing secretary. A Cuomo spokesman declined comment Thursday.