A quiet decision by Gov. Andrew Cuomo involving the ability of his appointed inspector general to access private tax records of legislators and state employees was called dangerous by a top lawmaker Monday.
State Sen. John DeFrancisco questioned the legality of the authority given by Cuomo's tax department, which has strict privacy rules, to his appointed state inspector general, who has broad investigative power.
"I don't know where legal authority comes from," said DeFrancisco, a Republican, lawyer and chairman of his chamber's Finance Committee. "It could lead to simply fishing expeditions. I just think it's very, very dangerous."
He said district attorneys and the state attorneys general require a court order to get private tax records — and then only after the investigative agency proves the data is needed for an investigation that's already under way.
The Cuomo administration downplayed the issue hours after the agreement in a legal "memorandum of understanding" was first reported by the Times Union of Albany. The administration said its inspector general's office always had legal access to tax records of 200,000 state workers and that the memorandum simply updated that power.
Last year, Cuomo ended the policy of assigning deputy inspectors general to key agencies including the Tax and Finance Department, where the deputies were employees of the agency. Now, all deputy inspectors work from the state Inspector General's Office, under Cuomo appointee Ellen Biben.
The memorandum of understanding simply continues the flow of tax records which had gone to the deputy tax inspector general within the Department of Taxation and Finance under its strict privacy laws to 62 members of state Inspector General's Office, according to the Cuomo administration.
DeFrancisco and Assembly Ways and Means Chairman Herman Farrell said they want more answers about what they consider a revalation of extraordinary powers of Cuomo's inspector general.
"Let's suppose a union official has been a pain to the administration," DeFrancisco told reporters after a joint committee hearing on taxes. "What prevents the IG from starting an investigation and, when they can't find a darn thing, (say) 'Well, let's look at his tax records and find something there.'"
"It appears what you've done is agreed between yourselves to do something to me, and I don't mean 'me,' you can look at my records," Farrell said. "I'm not talking for myself, but there are a lot of other people."
Hours later, the Cuomo administration released a statement from the agencies saying that the move was done for efficiency and that the deputy inspector in the tax department had previously reported directly to the state inspector general.
"The MOU does not and was not intended to expand or diminish any authority or function, and to assert otherwise would be wrong," according to the statement from the inspector general's office and the tax department.
Tax Commissioner Thomas Mattox said the inspector general has obtained tax records without a subpoena since at least 1996. The new memorandum of understanding between the two agencies is simply an update, prompted by Cuomo's decision to take away inspectors general at various agencies where they were employees and consolidate the power under the state inspector general.
"It's not clear to me why this has drawn as much attention as it has, because as a practical matter the structure of the agreement is effectively unchanged," he said.
"This is something that's new to me," DeFrancisco, a senator since 1992, told reporters later.
Mattox said he doesn't think the power would have a chilling effect on state lawmakers or political critics of the administration or on employees who could become whistle-blowers on corruption.
"State employees have obligations to file their returns and follow New York state law generally today," Mattox told reporters.