TV Celeb Sandra Lee Pulled into NY Legislative Ethics Debate

Sandra Lee has built an empire on lifestyle and cooking advice, but it's her status as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's live-in girlfriend that has placed her in the midst of a political fight over stronger state ethics laws.

Cuomo is demanding that lawmakers report income they make from outside jobs as part of an ethics overhaul. In response, Republican lawmakers say it's only fair to require officials to file disclosures including the finances of domestic partners such as Lee, a successful TV chef and author.

Spouses of officials are already covered by existing disclosure laws, but since Cuomo and Lee aren't married, she isn't included.

"I didn't bring up his girlfriend," Skelos told reporters Thursday. "It's not about his friend — she's a wonderful person — this is about equality in terms of disclosure between the executive branch and the legislative branch. This is not anything that is personal."

Lee, a cookbook author, magazine publisher and television chef, has had business dealings with publishers, TV stations and other companies. Her spokeswoman said last month that none of Lee's companies lobby or do business with the state. Lee and Cuomo have dated for several years and share a home in Westchester County. She has little involvement in government.

Cuomo's office has dismissed the Senate Republican's idea as a red herring offered up during budget negotiations, a contentious time of brinksmanship when lawmakers and governors often engage in creative gambits to get their way.

In a sarcastic response to the Republicans, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi tweeted that "the administration is glad to negotiate disclosure of all girlfriends."

A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday found that 64 percent of respondents support requiring the live-in partners and spouses of elected officials to disclose the source and size of their income. The March 11-16 poll of 1,228 New York voters has a 2.8 percent margin of error.

Republicans say there's nothing specific about Lee's business that makes them suspect a conflict of interest. On Tuesday, the beverage giant Diageo announced a new ready-to-serve alcoholic product called "Sandra Lee Cocktail Time" margaritas. Diageo has made campaign contributions in New York over the years, a common practice for large corporations.

A message left Thursday with Lee's spokeswoman seeking comment was not immediately returned.

Extending state disclosure laws to cover domestic partners is only one of the changes sought by Republicans, who also want term limits on legislative leadership positions and greater disclosure of the expenses of executive staffers.

The GOP proposal is meant to counter an ethics overhaul agreement worked out by Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Democrats who did not include Skelos in their talks. The Cuomo-Heastie plan would require lawmakers to report all outside income over $1,000 and require attorneys in the Legislature to identify their big clients, though exceptions would be made for family law and criminal cases.

The push for greater disclosure follows a long series of corruption arrests, including most recently Heastie's predecessor, former Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is fighting charges that he accepted $4 million in kickbacks disguised as legal fees.

Lawmakers hope to pass ethics reforms alongside the state budget sometime before April 1. Heastie said Thursday that he's willing to entertain Skelos' proposal to include governor's girlfriends in disclosure laws.

"That's something that can be discussed," he said. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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