WXXI Local Stories
1:10 pm
Mon October 26, 2009

Monserrate Legal Fund a "Million Dollar Loophole" in Gift Ban, Group Says

Albany, New York – A government reform group is blasting a decision by the Legislative Ethics Commission to allow State Senator Hiram Monserrate to collect money for a legal defense funds, saying it creates a "million dollar loophole" in the state's gift ban. The existence of the legal defense fund was first reported by the Albany Times Union.

Russ Haven, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says the decision by the Legislative Ethics Commission to allow embattled State Senator Hiram Monserrate to set up a legal defense trust fund, creates a dangerous new category of gift giving for legislators, and should be stopped. He says the ruling is "stunning, even by Albany standards".

"Not only is the door opened, but the side of the building has been blown out," said Haven. "We don't see any end to it".

Under the arrangement, Monserrate won't know who the contributors are, but Haven says there's no rule against the contributor telling the Senator about the donation later, when they might want the Senator to act on their behalf.

Monserrate, who was convicted of misdemeanor assault charges against his girlfriend, is also facing possible expulsion from the Senate by a special committee set up by the Senate Leader. The committee has hired attorneys and is conducting a probe.

A spokesman for the Senate Majority acknowledges that there are some problems with the Legislative Ethics Commission ruling. Senate Democratic spokesman Austin Shafran blames the laws themselves that govern how to set up legal defense funds for public officials. Shafran says the rules are "unfortunately ambiguous", and do not define which contributors are appropriate and which should be banned from making a donation. He says he hopes the oversight can be addressed as the Senate crafts an ethics reform package.

Haven, with NYPIRG, says the whole arrangement demonstrates why there's a need for an independent watchdog ethics commission.