The Post Star
October 5, 2013
Few comparisons are less apt than Assemblyman Tony Jordan’s comparison of lawyers to doctors in the context of client confidentiality.
The subject came up because Jordan is one of the members of the state Legislature balking at a request from the Moreland Commission for details of outside work legislators do.
The commission, whose formal name is the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, asked state lawmakers to turn over information on outside employment in 2012 that paid more than $20,000.
In reference to the lawyers in the Legislature, the commission’s letter asked for “a list of your clients in any civil matters or in any publicly filed criminal matters.”
The first problem with Jordan’s comparison is its irrelevance. The commission is not asking for lists of patients from doctors.
What conflicts of interests are likely to arise in the rare instances when a legislator is also a working physician? It’s hard to imagine one.
Many legislators are lawyers, however, with active practices. Last year, Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos made $250,000 in his law practice. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver made more than that, perhaps as much as $450,000, according to ethics disclosure records.
It’s easy to come up with dozens of scenarios in which conflicts of interests could arise for lawyer-legislators.
Let’s say, for example, a legislator represents a big papermaking company in his private law practice. What happens when he has to vote on legislation important to that industry, such as state tax breaks on forestland used for timbering?
Let’s say a legislator is paid tens of thousands of dollars a year to represent a hospital in malpractice cases, and then has the opportunity to vote on malpractice reform legislation.
We won’t insult your intelligence by saying the citizens of New York should simply trust in the honesty of politicians like Silver and Skelos.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo established the Moreland Commission after a rash of political corruption scandals involving state legislators. Cuomo turned to this investigative mechanism because legislators refused to go along with a package of anti-corruption reforms he had proposed.
Legislators would have you believe requiring lawyers to turn over the names of clients would violate their most sacred trust, attorney-client confidentiality.
Then why do 20 other states require such disclosures to combat conflicts of interest? If disclosure violated some first principle of law, how is it possible the requirement has held up in 20 other states?
If disclosure of clients’ names by state legislators were wrong, why would the New York State Bar Association have come out in favor of it?
“The public has an interest in knowing whether a public official is profiting from office; the public has an interest in knowing whether a public official has interests with or ties to particular special interests; and the public has an interest in knowing those financial interests that can affect a public official’s actions.”
That statement is from a 2011 report by the bar association’s task force on government ethics. After setting out a vigorous case for extensive disclosure of legislators’ outside business dealings, the task force took up the case of lawyers and the disclosure of client names:
“… the Task Force recommends that professionals, including attorneys, be subject to the same disclosure requirements as other individuals.”
The report suggested exceptions be made in certain limited cases when the lawyer could show the client would be harmed by disclosure.
Some legislators have suggested they could get in trouble with the bar association for revealing who their legal clients are, which must surprise the bar association, since it recommended disclosure two years ago.
The Legislature created this situation — first, through the corrupt behavior of numerous legislators; and second, through its refusal to carry out the reforms Cuomo put forward.
Now it is trying again to block efforts to clean up the way it does business. Neither the commission nor the public should let legislators get away with it. They do not deserve special treatment — not as legislators, not as lawyers, not at all.
Local editorials represent the opinion of the Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rick Emanuel, Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle and citizen representative Vincent Palacino.