ALBANY, New York — Proposed changes to ethics rules unveiled Tuesday would make it easier for lobbyists to conceal their donors and clients and funders from public view and broaden a ban on gifts to politicians in Albany, where a spate of corruption cases have ensnared state lawmakers.
Currently, lobbyists may keep their donors and potentially other financial data secret if there is a "substantial likelihood" of harm, particularly harm to donors or others should they be identified. The definition of harm, however, isn't clear. A common example is concern over identifying donors to abortion rights groups, but "harm" may also include fear of financial or other damage.
But the proposal by Joint Commission on Public Ethics staff would lower that standard to a "reasonable" likelihood or probability of harm in identifying donors. Executive Director Ellen Biben said the current, more stringent threshold might not comply with the state constitution and could therefore be susceptible to a legal challenge.
"The 'substantial likelihood' standard may be constitutionally too high," Biben said. "We agree."
The proposals come as a federal prosecutor this month made arrests in bribery and corruption cases involving state lawmakers.
The state's former lobbying regulator called the standard a "more subjective task."
"At the end of the day, nobody is really affected by the source of funding disclosure," said David Grandeau, now a private attorney with clients before JCOPE
The commission's staff also recommended changes in the gift ban.
The proposal states the ban on bestowing gifts of anything more than a nominal value of $10 applies to "interested sources," which means any lobbyist or client with contracts or regulatory or legislative business before the state.
The ban would exclude awards, plaques, "other ceremonial items," honorary degrees, and promotional items.
On Tuesday, JCOPE said the gift ban extends to spouses, relatives and those with a "personal relationship" to a public official. That appears to avoid a conflict in which JCOPE finds itself over Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his girlfriend, Food Network star Sandra Lee.
This month, JCOPE issued an opinion that Lee is Cuomo's domestic partner, and considers her part of the "first family" that is entitled to accompany Cuomo on state aircraft for official business. However, JCOPE doesn't require Lee to report any financial data in Cuomo's ethics filings which are required of spouses.
The religious and conservative lobbying group, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, is challenging that position in a formal request for review to JCOPE. The group attended Tuesday's meeting, but didn't comment.
Grandeau also said the gift ban is too broad.
"I cannot envision anyone actually being convicted of giving an illegal gift because the loopholes are so large," he said.
JCOPE commissioners will have to approve the changes.