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New York Launches First-Of-Its-Kind Lobbying Database

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, July 29 2013

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has launched a new lobbying database that the Cuomo administration and even some transparency advocates are calling the first of its kind in the United States.

The Project Sunlight database provides information on meetings between government representatives and outside individuals relating to state procurement, rate-making, regulatory matters, agency-based judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings, and the adoption or repeal of rules and regulations, according to a Cuomo press release.

The database follows from the passage of the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011, which mandates the creation of a database "of any individual or firm that appears in a representative capacity before any state governmental entity."

The platform launched Friday does not cover lobbying appearances related to the passage of the budget or legislation, since, according to the Cuomo press release, those are regulated by the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which is also new.

The database has been in beta since January 1, when it first became operational, according to the state press release. Since that time, over 75 state agencies, authorities, public benefit corporations, the State University of New York and the City University of New York systems have entered data into the system, which already has over 3,000 entries available, according to the press release. In addition, around 6,000 employees of the affected agencies received training on how to report information to the database.

Users can search the database by government entity, by client company, representing company, government attendee name, client attendee name or outside representative name, the nature of the meeting and by date range. The data can be exported in CSV or XML format.

Searches for the name Cuomo do not bring up any results, but a search for MTA New York City Transit Authority, for example, brings up 59 records, all related to "Procuring a State Contract for real property, goods or services."

Each record gives the date, the location and the participants in the meeting, in many respects echoing the White House visitor records. In the MTA's case, nearly all the meetings were held at Transit Authority headquarters or locations such as Grand Central Station.

But one meeting on March 16 took place at T-Mobile offices in Parsippany, NJ, at which MTA officials met with T-Mobile executives, including Tom Ellefson, VP of Northeast Engineering, and Chris Jaeger and Bill Bayne, managing director and CEO of Transit Wireless, respectively.

The record doesn't specify what exact contract was under discussion at the meeting, though this one could have had to do with plans to expand wireless service in the subway system.

Government advocacy groups welcomed the launch of the system. The Brennan Center for Justice noted in a statement that the database would help address concerns about the limited scope of client disclosure reports that the 2011 law also required of lawmakers and other officials working as lawyers or consultants.

"Indeed, the first set of these reports, which were filed in June 2013 by lawmakers and other officials, reveal very few clients," the statement notes. "Although there will still be significant gaps in the available information about the outside activities of lawmakers and other officials, this database will ensure that going forward the public, the media, and policymakers will be better able to discern whether an officeholder or their business partners are representing clients with state business before state agencies, an important part of the overall picture."

The announcement of the new database follows other open data and transparency inititatives that Cuomo has pushed earlier this year, from the launch of the state's open data platform, which in March included information from nearly 70 localities, and recently publishing a draft of the state's open data guidelines on GitHub.

"The database is an excellent example of how the Governor can use the powers of his office to fashion innovative ways to improve integrity and transparency in Albany, despite political stalemate on key reform issues," the Brennan Center says in its statement. "The new client database is the first of its kind, and we hope will become a model for transparency and accountability nationally."