House lawmakers were admonished during a closed caucus this month to use caution when recommending colleagues or constituents for public sector jobs, a task once considered a routine part of the job.
The legislators were told that verbal recommendations could be “perilous” and advised that written referrals for constituents must be doled out evenly.
The cautionary advice came after the State Ethics Commission issued its first-ever advisory opinion last month on the topic of job recommendations, a nine-page memo that has prompted some confusion among legislators. The advisory has made them increasingly skittish about a practice that has been defended in recent years as a routine function of an elected official and criticized as a potentially unethical act.
House counsel Jim Kennedy briefed Democrats and Republicans in a private, joint caucus about two weeks ago on the Ethics Commission advisory, issued on Jan. 18, according to lawmakers who attended.
“The impression from reading the advisory, along with his interpretation, is your best bet would be not to do them until there is clarification, because there’s a perception that you could be in violation of the ethics laws,” said one lawmaker, requesting anonymity to speak about the private meeting. “It was pretty complicated, but it makes you nervous.
“For me, I’m putting it on hold until I feel comfortable,” the House member continued. “Basically, you’re putting yourself at risk by doing it.”
The House and Senate passed a law in 2011 governing job recommendations, a reaction to the scandal within the Probation Department in which top probation officials were accused of rigging the hiring process to favor candidates recommended by legislators in an attempt to curry favor.
The new law bars state agencies from considering written recommendations on behalf of job candidates until the final stages of the hiring process, but the final version of the bill excluded a House-passed proposal to ban verbal recommendations.
“There are still a lot of questions, and nobody wants to do something that’s going to get them in trouble,” said another House lawmaker, speaking about the advice from the Speaker’s office.
A spokeswoman for the Ethics Commission said the advisory was issued, almost two years after the law was last updated, in response to questions posed by lawmakers seeking advice from the commission about how the state’s conflict-of-interest laws apply to job recommendations.
Kennedy was not available to discuss his memo and interpretation of the ethics bulletin, but aides for DeLeo acknowledged the legal team was working to help members adhere to the law. “The office of the house counsel has been engaged in educating members about the advisory,” DeLeo spokesman Seth Gitell said.
In his memo, Kennedy told House members that the ethics advisory was “vague and ambiguous at times, which has created some pitfalls of which I want to make you aware.”
Kennedy said the House counsel’s office would be seeking clarification to help members to avoid violating the law.