New ethics rules spark strong dissent from commissioner

Ethics commissioner Ravi Batra was the lone dissenter on new disclosure rules for contributors to nonprofit lobbying campaigns. AP Photo/Mike Groll

Two days after they were approved by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), new state lobbying rules ordering nonprofit organizations to disclose their sources of funding have come under fire by the lone dissenter on the commission, Ravi Batra.

In an email he sent to reporters, Batra accussed the commission majority of illegally delaying enforcement of disclosure until January 2013, and allowing donations from the last half of 2011 to remain shielded from public view. Bhatra called it “a net effect of a delayed 6-month stealthy cloaking worthy of a Klingon warship in Star Trek.”

The Public Integrity Reform Act (PIRA), which was signed into law in August of 2011, enabled JCOPE to write regulations requiring lobbying groups to disclose the names of their donors. Such groups include the Committee to Save New York, which spent more on lobbying last year than any other group in the state and continues to refuse to disclose its sources of funding.

Championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the ethics law went into effect on June 1. Batra contended that the first filing should therefore have come on July 15, the date of the next regularly scheduled lobbying report. That would have forced disclosure of contributions dating back to July 2011, since the law calls for disclosure dating back at least a year. Instead, over Batra’s objections, JCOPE approved draft regulations that require disclosure to begin for the next filing period, which runs from July 1 to December 31.

Batra contends that his fellow commission members had blatantly misinterpreted the Public Integrity Inform Act. “As long as I serve on JCOPE I wish to honor the law and honor the very important achievement of our terrific governor,” he told The New York World.

JCOPE spokesperson John Milgrim called the commission’s proposed regulations “wholly consistent with the law and provide for unprecedented disclosure.”

“Commissioner Batra shared his analysis of the law with the other commissioners during the public meeting Tuesday, and his interpretations were rejected as unfounded and inconsistent with the law,” said Milgrim in an email to The New York World.

JCOPE’s draft rules required groups that spent more than $50,000 on lobbying a year to disclose sources of funding that of more than $5,000. The proposed regulations also require that donations from the same household be aggregated.

These measures drew praise from the Brennan Center for Justice, a legal reform group. “For the first time, New York State voters, the media, and our policymakers will have a greater understanding of the true backers of large lobbying campaigns,” the center’s corporate general counsel Kelly Williams said in a written statement released this week.

JCOPE’s draft regulations also specify exemptions for disclosure if the lobbyist client can show clear and convincing evidence that it will “cause harm, threats, harassment or reprisals” to the donor.

JCOPE also voted this week to approve draft guidelines governing the disclosure business relationships with State officials and employees. Lobbyists and their clients must report any business relationship in which more than $1,000 in goods or services is provided by an elected official or state employee, or by an entity in which an official or state employee is involved.

The commission will take public comments before issuing a final rule in the fall.

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