"Quitting Time"

Published by The New York Times on June 5, 2005.

New York’s legislative session, which is scheduled to end on June 23, has the potential to be one of the most productive and substantive in recent memory. Passage of legislation aimed at improving governmental integrity could turn that potential into a significant achievement, most notably by closing a loophole in the ethics law exposed by the state's highest court a decade ago.

In 1995, the New York Court of Appeals held that the State Ethics Commission generally loses jurisdiction over state employees when they leave state service. The impact of the decision has created an unsettling situation. Now, when state employees are under investigation for ethical transgressions, they can simply resign, which has the legal effect of a self-conferred grant of immunity. In most instances, they even avoid the possibility that future employers could find out about the accusations against them, because the commission is required to keep its investigations confidential until a formal charge is lodged.

During the last 10 years, the commission has been forced to close more than 50 investigations because of this loophole. Some cases were never even referred to the commission because of this jurisdictional defect. Dozens of examples of unethical behavior by state employees who put their personal interests ahead of the public's will forever be resigned to government-issue filing cabinets at the commission's office.

While those filing cabinets may hold evidence supporting allegations of lavish gifts and illegal junkets to faraway places, the debate has moved beyond the need to provide additional examples to support a change in the law. At this stage there is no rationale for failing to repair such a glaring weakness in a body of law that originally was intended to enhance the public's confidence in government.

Gov. George E. Pataki has supported closing this loophole every year since 1996. His strong public comment earlier this year, in favor of closing it, is invaluable. Now it's time for the Legislature to agree on a bill, pass it and deliver it to the governor for his signature.