The New York Times: Shadowy Inauguration for Sunshine Law [Editorial]

Shadowy Inauguration for Sunshine Law

The New York Times

August 21, 2013

The New York state ethics commission voted behind closed doors last June to exempt a leading abortion-rights group, Naral Pro-Choice New York, from a new ethics law requiring tax-exempt organizations to disclose their major donors as they lobby in public forums. The action is causing understandable controversy and cries of liberal bias. It should be reconsidered — out in the open and in the spirit of the law’s goal to shed more sunshine, not less, on the entwined workings of government and political lobbying.

Predictably, groups from across the political spectrum are now seeking the same accommodation under the law’s exemption for organizations whose donors of more than $5,000 might be endangered if their names were made public. Naral is hardly alone as a busy player in what is a booming, jostling world of political lobbying by nonprofit organizations from right to left claiming “social welfare” exemption under the federal tax code.

The Cuomo administration’s two-year-old disclosure law — so far observed by about 80 organizations — allows exemptions for groups whose donors might face “harm, threats, harassment or reprisals.” But its principal goal is to shed badly needed sunlight on a shadowy crossroads of state lobbying and politicking.

Drawing the line between the heated in-your-face conflict of modern political debate and real threats of danger is no easy matter, particularly in abortion-rights endeavors where there is a history of violence, including the murder of a doctor 15 years ago in suburban Buffalo. A conservative pressure group, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, which is opposed to same-sex marriage, said it was seeking an exemption by citing attacks on similarly minded supporters in California.

These fears may indeed be real. But the ethics commission should hardly be expected to play the protective role of a police agency; nor should it end up granting blanket exemptions for groups mainly worried about protecting donors’ wish for privacy. The commission has a responsibility to the public under the law to show that exemptions will be rare and backed by undeniable evidence of actual threats. Otherwise, big-money partisan lobbying via hidden backers will only proliferate as the public heads deeper into the dark, and the ethics law itself will begin to unravel, thread by thread.

In the face of a member’s complaint, the commission has been postponing consideration of other lobbying groups’ applications for exemptions. It is reported to be considering whether its procedures can be made less opaque — surely an absolute requirement if a good law is not to be riddled from the outset with loopholes.

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