ALBANY (TNS) — State Senate Democratic leaders are seeking to close an apparent lobbying loophole for nominations to statewide positions that require confirmation by the Senate.
The loophole, which was first reported by the Times Union last month, allows for individuals or groups seeking to influence the vote of senators on a nominee without having to report their activities to the state Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government.
The issue came under scrutiny following Gov. Kathy Hochul’s nomination of state Supreme Court appellate Justice Hector D. LaSalle as the chief judge with the Court of Appeals. LaSalle’s nomination quickly became engrossed in a divisive political debate, which led to substantial efforts by outside groups trying to convince lawmakers to vote for or against his confirmation.
A progressive, criminal justice-focused group, Center for Community Alternatives, launched an aggressive campaign against LaSalle’s nomination, urging lawmakers to vote against his confirmation. The center filed lobbying disclosures on its campaign regarding an “executive order,” which was described as “chief judge of the (state) Court of Appeals nomination.”
Citizens for Judicial Fairness, a Delaware-based political group with deep ties in New York City, waged a campaign in support of LaSalle, who would have been the first Latino chief judge in New York. A spokesman for the group told the Times Union they spent between $75,000 and $100,000 on their efforts to influence lawmakers, but they did not view themselves as legally bound to file lobbying disclosures.
A third group that sought to influence votes was Latinos for LaSalle, which was led by the MirRam group’s Luis A. Miranda and Roberto Ramirez.
Citizens for Judicial Fairness’ spokesman previously told the Times Union they were not a coordinated group with Latinos for LaSalle although the two groups had communicated. Facebook data show Latinos for LaSall spent about $35,000 for ads on the social media platform, which were paid for by Citizens for Judicial Fairness.
“Justice Hector LaSalle is the most qualified candidate to be N.Y.’s chief judge,” one of the Facebook ads read. “Tell Senator Breslin: Vote Yes. Stand up against the extremist smear campaign.”
Latinos for LaSalle, through its ads paid for by Citizens for Judicial Fairness, had a separate advertisement that named the respective Democratic senators on the state Senate Judiciary Committeewho had not already said they were in favor of the nomination.
The committee rejected the nomination of LaSalle; a vacancy remains on the state’s highest court and a new nominee, from Hochul, is expected to be subject to approval by the Senate later this year.
Ahead of the next nomination, Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris has submitted a bill that would mandate lobbying reporting for anyone seeking to influence lawmakers on a nomination that is subject to confirmation by the Senate. Assemblyman John T. McDonald, chair of the Committee on Governmental Operations, said he is looking at sponsoring a version of the bill.
“The danger in people trying to influence judicial appointments is just as great, if not greater, than for those trying to influence legislation,” Gianaris, D- Queens, said in an interview Friday. “To somehow allow that influence to be exerted in secrecy makes absolutely no sense.”
Gianaris noted that in recent history, judicial nominees have received more scrutiny and interest from those for and against the individuals.
“We should absolutely pull back the cloak of secrecy to create more accountability and confidence in an entire branch of government,” Gianaris said.
Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, previously told the Times Union that it “appears to be a yawning gap in the public’s right to know how special interest groups influence government and it should get fixed.”
Absent so far from the conversation on lobbying laws has been the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government, which replaced the embattled Joint Commission on Public Ethics. It has not previously opined on lobbying on judicial nominations, according to a commission spokeswoman.
The commission did not discuss the issue at its meeting last month and is not scheduled to discuss the issue at its next meeting on Tuesday.
The commission recently announced Carol Quinn will be its director of lobbying, removing the “acting” title from her position. Quinn, similar to most of the high-ranking staff of the commission, has been with the ethics commission since 2015, when she helped to revise lobbying regulations and update its online lobbying application.
The panel is working on proposed regulations to authorize the issuance of subpoenas by the executive director of the commission and potentially putting together a commission on Freedom of Information Law regulations, according to its agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.
Sanford N. Berland, executive director of the commission, is focused on the commission’s ability to keep up with providing ethics training and vetting lobbying disclosures, according to written testimony he provided to state officials at a recent budget hearing.
Changes in state law have led a 10-fold increase in who needs to comply with ethics training, from roughly 3,000 to 300,000 individuals, according to Berland. The commission is also trying to “eliminate the ongoing backlog” in processing lobbying filings, Berland added. He noted “lobbying activity remains at historically high levels,” with the industry spending at least $292 million each of the last two years.