As the legislative session begins to wind down, lawmakers want to change state law to close ethical gaps in Albany after lobbyists spent an unprecedented amount of money this winter to influence the confirmation of the person to lead the state's highest court.
Legislation advanced out of Senate committees this week to require people employed to influence a state nomination or confirmation process to publicly disclose their identity, expenditures and activities. Another on-the-floor calendar, which suggests a vote is imminent, would ban the use of taxpayer dollars to reimburse political campaigns or legal defense accounts if a state employee is acquitted of criminal charges connected to their time in office.
Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, who sponsors both measures, says outside groups like Citizens for Judicial Fairness and Latinos for LaSalle paid hundreds of thousands of dollars both for and against Hector LaSalle's failed Court of Appeals chief judge nomination.
"We don't know where that money came from," he said Wednesday. "The normal laws that apply to lobbying disclosure do not apply to confirmation battles."
The battle over LaSalle revealed a loophole in state law that allowed those groups to not report who was paying them to sway who would control the state Court of Appeals.
"The notion that that much money would be spent on the nomination is unusual in New York," Gianaris explained.
LaSalle's rejection marked the first time in state history senators voted to reject the governor's nominee for chief judge. State lobbying rules are developed with a list of criteria used to identify if an activity constitutes lobbying or not. The list does not include state nominations and confirmations.
"So that's something that I think wasn't contemplated when the definition of lobbying right was laid out in the law," Gianaris said.
Senators could vote on both measures as early as next week.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says the public should know the influences and benefactors behind high-ranking state positions before a person is confirmed.
"I think it's important to know if there is some sort of special interest and that is pushing certain nominees or different things," Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from Yonkers, said in the state Capitol on Tuesday.
Political candidates in New York rely on private donations to run for office, which good-government groups argue must be used for campaigning and nothing more.
Former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno used campaign money on his legal defense when he faced criminal charges, which were ultimately overturned.
"Certainly, the public should not be reimbursing those committees when that happens," Gianaris said.
Lobbyist and Executive Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group Blair Horner wants both bills passed, saying they'll improve transparency.
"We have a very strong historically held position that campaign contributions should be used for campaigning, period," Horner said. "Not for petty cash accounts to take people out to dinner, not for flowers. Not a Get Out of Jail Free card."
Democratic lawmakers in the Assembly continue to review the bills in committee, but Speaker Carl Heastie has yet to take a position. It's unclear how quickly, or if, the bills will advance in the Legislature's lower house.
Assemblyman John McDonald, a Cohoes Democrat, is the other sponsor of the legislation to change state lobbying requirements. It currently sits in the Assembly Government Operations Committee, which he chairs.
"I'm reviewing it with our team to see if there's any technical issues, but also to see if there's any issues that we see, overall, that need to be considered," the assemblyman said.
McDonald recently met with Gianaris about advancing the legislation before the session ends June 8.
"What I'm more focused on is how do we move it forward in our house in the remaining weeks of session?" he said. "...Having that disclosure will actually add to a fuller conversation and hopefully lead to a better outcome."
Representatives with the Senate Republicans did not respond to questions about the conference's stance on either bill before they likely come to the floor for a full vote in the coming days.