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August 29, 2013

Duffy's home buy raises red flags

The Daily Star
The Daily Star

---- — It’s bad enough that Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy bought a lakefront home from a lobbyist at a price below the home’s market value — and never disclosed the transaction. But what’s worse is that both Duffy and the lobbyist seem genuinely unaware of how that might be a problem.

The fact that a lobbyist, in this case Rochester Business Alliance head Sandra Parker, owned the home wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if Duffy bought it by coincidence. But in an interview with the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle last week, Duffy admitted the transaction was one between friends. After he expressed interest in buying a home near the Finger Lakes, Parker offered to sell one of her two lake houses to Duffy for $527,000 – about $35,000 less than its market value of $573,000.

“There’s no sweetheart deal,” Duffy said last week. “There’s no insider deal. It was a friend who was selling property … I stand by it. I take umbrage and exception to the inference that there was anything else.”

Neither Duffy nor Parker mentioned the sale in their disclosures to the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, according to the Albany Times-Union, which first reported the story. A spokesman for the ethics panel, John Milgrim, shrugged off the controversy last week with an attitude typical of JCOPE’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” mindset.

“A reportable business relationship is one in which a lobbyist or client pays compensation to a state official who provides goods and services in return,” Milgrim said. “Not the other way around.”

Milgrim’s technicality is droll. A generous deal on a lakefront home, if not a “business relationship,” certainly counts for something.

The professional relationship between Parker and Duffy makes the sale more unsettling. Parker is a member of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s regional development council for the Finger Lakes region, of which Duffy, a former Rochester mayor, is chairman along with the other regional councils.

Dick Dadey, the executive director of watchdog group Citizens Union, said the sale is an example of the flaws in New York’s lobbying disclosure rules.

“When a significant financial transaction takes place between an elected official and a lobbying entity, transparency in democracy cries out for such disclosure,” Dadey said. “The lieutenant governor is entitled to a level of privacy, but it does change things when it involves a lobbying entity.”

Parker wouldn’t concede as much, blasting the Times-Union’s report last week as “just an example of why people don’t want to go into public life.”

She has a point. It must be embarrassing to have such a shady deal exposed by some pesky newspaper. But for those of us with an interest in honest government, such disclosures are necessary.