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NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo Backtracks After Vetoes, Issues Freedom of Information Executive Order

New York Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo raised the ire of government reform activists by vetoing two bills that would have loosened the state’s strict controls over its Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to allow citizens quicker and easier access to government records. But then he reversed course the next day and issued an executive order intended to do the same thing.

The Governor’s veto comes on the heels of several high-profile prosecutions for corruption of highly placed state politicians of both parties, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a powerful Democrat.

Cuomo vetoed the two bills on Friday, saying they were “myopic.”

“[T]hese bills are myopic in their scope and focus only on one branch of government,” Cuomo said in his veto message. “This would only serve to perpetuate a fractured system of transparency and data production by intentionally excluding other branches of government.”

The Governor’s actions, though, angered reformers, who were hoping to make changes to the laws and who had said that they were the best bills the state could get on the issue.

“We think they’re mom and apple pie bills,” John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said earlier this year. “There’s no opposition to them whatsoever and, really, they’re about increasing transparency of state government.”

One of the bills would have reduced the time government agencies have to appeal court rulings granting access to public records cutting the current nine months to only two months. The other bill would have forced state agencies to pay legal fees and court costs when a judge rules against decisions to deny access to records.

Activists were disappointed with the veto.

Reinvent Albany and eight other government groups issued a combined statement, saying, “Our groups are deeply disappointed that in the midst of unprecedented scandals in Albany, Governor Cuomo vetoed two bills that would have made New York’s government more transparent and accountable.”

“The governor was given a clear choice between being part of the problem in Albany or part of the solution,” the statement added. “These vetoes call into question the governor’s commitment to transparency and Freedom of Information.”

But the following day, Cuomo issued an executive order meant to address the same issue, after claiming that his office would “not let the Legislature off the hook for not being subject to FOIL.”

The executive order expedites the appeals process once a FOIL request has been denied, by setting a 60-day window for appeal or other legal response. However, it still allows for exemptions for “extremely complex matters or extraordinary circumstances outside agency control.”

Activists are worried that Cuomo’s exemptions could make his order toothless. They are also critical that there is no concrete idea of just what would happen if state agencies persist in ignoring the rules.

Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at igcolonel@hotmail.com.

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