Showdown in New York over proposed ethics law. Cuomo unhappy with new legislation on grounds it's too soft

A showdown over ethics legislation in corruption-weary New York pits state legislators against Gov. Mario Cuomo and a host of political and civic leaders. Governor Cuomo had threatened to veto the legislation, passed last week, unless it was strengthened. He gave legislators until late afternoon yesterday to make a move. The possibility that the legislature might override a Cuomo veto was also being considered. As of press time, neither the governor nor the legislature had acted.

The ethics bill, which passed last week by a large majority in both state chambers, establishes a permanent state ethics commission, changes financial disclosure requirements, and restricts state officials and employees in some instances, from appearing before a state agency on behalf of a client.

The assault on the bill has come from a range of groups and individuals. Both United States Attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, who successfully prosecuted a major New York City corruption case, and State Attorney General Robert Abrams, whose office is also busy investigating corruption, urged the governor to veto the measure. Mr. Abrams said each of the bill's major provisions ``is seriously flawed,'' and ``falls far short of the sweeping reforms which are needed to prevent and deter corrupt practices ... and to rebuild the public trust in government which is essential to the working of our democracy.''

Groups such as Common Cause, Citizens' Union of the City of New York, and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York also registered protests over the legislation. For example, penalty and public disclosure provisions are ``grossly inadequate,'' says Jeannette Kahlenberg, executive director of the Citizens' Union, which sent a telegram to the governor urging a veto.

The bill is ``inadequate ... in significant ways, even a step backward,'' said Robert M. Kaufman, president of the New York City Bar Association, in a letter to Cuomo and legislative leaders.

``It is a case of the legislature monitoring itself,'' says Ms. Kahlenberg.

These critics say there are loopholes in the law, which would allow state officials or employees to become involved in cases before state agencies. Criminal penalties previously levied against offenders would now become civil penalties. They would also like to see the bill cover political leaders, such as county party leaders.

New York's corruption crisis has largely been focused in New York City, where local officials - including a congressman, a borough president, and Democratic Party county leader - have been indicted or convicted on charges ranging from bribery to fraud. Recently, though, it has spread to the State Legislature, where one assemblywoman recently resigned after she admitted to giving two ``no-show'' jobs to political allies. State and federal prosecutors are looking at similar cases in other legislators' offices.

Mr. Giuliani said recently that the ``common response'' of an institution to revelations of corruption is ``to say there's one ... or two rotten apples.'' But when cases increase, as they have in New York, there is a need to look at structural problems, and how to change them.

``And that's difficult, because a lot of people in power are benefitting from the way things are being done now,'' says Giuliani.

The ethics bill was passed amid controversy. Cuomo's choice of Joseph Califano to head the state anticorruption commission was resisted by legislators until Cuomo agreed to withdraw Mr. Califano in order to get the $5 million funding for the commission. Indeed, many see the current battle as a continuation of troubled relations between the governor and the State Legislature, which has gone against Cuomo on several issues this session.

``It is an important first step, but more than one step should have been taken,'' says one observer in New York City Hall.

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