Sunday, December 18, 2011

Schneiderman presses NY towns on ethics measures

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has asked the state's 932 towns to show his office their ethics codes in an effort to bolster self-policing by local government.
In recent letters to town supervisors, Executive Deputy Attorney General Martin Mack said state law requires municipalities — counties, cities, towns and villages — to adopt codes establishing standards of conduct for officers and employees.
Schneiderman, further ramping up a public integrity push, has begun reviewing ethics measures by local officials addressing issues like gifts, nepotism and conflicts of interest.
Mack asked the supervisors to send copies of their ethics codes, as well as contact information for their own ethics boards or whether they use county ethics boards, as the statute permits. The oversight boards are authorized but not required by law.

"It's important that the towns police themselves," Mack told The Associated Press on Friday. "The idea is that with so many levels of government, the belief here is that local government should do their own local ethics enforcement. There are just too many layers of government to have it all done from a single source in Albany."
The goal is to gather the information in 60 to 90 days and make it public. One practical aim is providing the attorney general's office with referral information for calls from New Yorkers with concerns, which have recently included questions about officials with connections to wind power and hydrofracking interests.
As part of his push, Schneiderman has assigned public integrity prosecutors in all 13 regional offices. He also established a taxpayer protection bureau intended to target corrupt government contractors, tax cheats and people gaming the public pension system.
Most towns started writing ethics codes in the 1970s, though many have revised them since, Mack said. "It's clear most towns have something."
While clear conflicts of interest by local officials can break the law, such as having a direct interest in a contract and voting to approve it instead of stepping aside, ethics questions are often murkier, Mack said. Ethics boards are intended to provide oversight and guidance on those questions.
The Association of Towns of the State of New York has posted guidance for members, noting potential conflicts between making decisions that directly affect lives and property in a community with business and personal relationships. The group noted few standards under state law for applications received by town boards, planning boards, zoning boards of appeals, building inspectors and other municipal agencies.
"Although codes of ethics can provide specific standards, such as private employment restrictions and prohibitions on holding of specific offices, there are many areas in which only general standards are feasible," the association said, noting the importance of ethics boards' advisory opinions that an official can follow or defend against. "In these areas a municipal official must exercise judgment."
The Town of Colonie requires all employees and anyone who works on behalf of the township outside Albany to abide by its ethics code, spokeswoman Sara Wiest said. Every employee and official has to sign an annual certification telling whether they have outside employment, if that employer does business with the town, and whether any immediate family members own more than 5 percent of a company doing business with the town or are engaged in any activity that would appear to be a conflict of interest.
Many officers and staff are required to make detailed annual financial disclosures, which were expanded in 2010. The town added whistleblower protection in 2008. The code also prohibits accepting gifts, with no set dollar amount, unlike the $75 threshold set by general municipal law, Wiest said. A three-member ethics board reviews the disclosures, can conduct hearings and issues advisory opinions. If the ethics board finds an ethics code violation, it can recommend disciplinary action by the Town Board.
The attorney general's office plans to send similar ethics letters to New York's villages and cities.
Schneiderman's public integrity push this year included teaming with Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli to combine auditing with investigation and prosecution of public corruption cases.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the former attorney general, advocated during his campaign for a comprehensive municipal ethics plan, saying officers and employees were not sufficiently trained in ethical pitfalls and avoiding overbearing friends, employers and neighbors who want small favors or help on bid applications.

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