You’ll be hard pressed to find someone to argue against the need for ethics reform in Albany. However, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the government entity spearheading ethics changes, recently took a curious step toward what they deem ethics reform by requiring public relations firms that talk to the press about government issues to register as lobbyists and report their conversations. We find this troubling, and so should the thousands of nonprofits across the state. Nonprofits add a valuable perspective on legislative matters, often giving voice to the voiceless. We believe they could very well be silenced by JCOPE’s move.
Specifically, JCOPE wants to know about conversations between PR firms and editorial boards. JCOPE writes that consultants “must file a bi-monthly report with the commission” and must “disclose the client, how much the client paid, and the specific government action (e.g., the bill number) that he or she attempted to influence.”
Groups that get government contracts, but oppose a government proposal, won’t want to be on the (JCOPE) record.
For example, perhaps a group that runs community-based health clinics for uninsured and underinsured New Yorkers sees a proposed state reform to Medicaid as misguided for the individuals it serves. In the past, that organization could have had confidential conversations, through its PR firm, with editorial boards. These conversations are important in giving editorial boards a broader perspective as they decide whether and how to editorialize on a topic. Today, those conversations must be reported. Many groups may worry about the repercussions of contacting editorial boards. If those groups are silenced – especially the thousands across the state that receive government funding to run programs for the most marginalized, disenfranchised and disconnected people – who will speak up for them? Who will give them a voice in the fight against misguided bills, programs and funding proposals?
This regulation doesn’t just appear to be imprudent, it may be illegal, infringing our First Amendment rights. We are not alone in our thinking. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article by Erica Orden, there are free-speech concerns among good government groups, too, including Common Cause New York and the Brennan Center for Justice.
This regulation seems to have little to do with lobbying. An editorial board is neither a government official nor a mouthpiece for PR people – a point made, unsurprisingly, in editorials from across the state: The Times Union, Crain’s New York Business, Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Daily News and others have all panned the rule.
We clearly need ethics reform in Albany, but not like this. The press offers a critical oversight mechanism but can’t be expected to be experts on everything. They must be able to easily get information from as wide a range of perspectives as possible. We hope to see this JCOPE rule overturned, by the legislature or by the courts, and soon. This is the height of the legislative cycle, after all.
Anat Gerstein is president of Anat Gerstein, Inc., and Allison Sesso is the executive director of the Human Services Council.