A state supreme court judge agreed this week that the public should have access to copies of financial disclosure statements filed by Niagara County lawmakers.
Following oral arguments on Thursday, Niagara County Supreme Court Justice Frank Caruso denied a request for dismissal of a lawsuit filed against the county by the New York Coalition for Open Government.
As part of his ruling, Caruso ordered the county to provide the coalition with copies of financial disclosure forms filed by Niagara County legislators and determined that a local law, approved by the Niagara County Legislature in 1996 that bars public disclosure of the forms, is illegal and in violation of New York's Freedom of Information Law.
Caruso reserved decision on whether the county should be required to pay attorney fees to the University at Buffalo Civil Liberties & Transparency Clinic, a wing of the university that assisted the coalition in filing its legal case.
“This decision vindicates the right of the public and press to serve as watchdogs and confirm that government officials are acting in the public interest free from financial conflicts," said Michael F. Higgins, attorney for the University at Buffalo Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic. "We look forward to reviewing the documents that were withheld for far too long.”
County attorney Claude Joerg said it was the county's position that lawmakers filed disclosures prior to 2019 with an understanding that they would not be made public under the old rules. Joerg indicated that the county intends to comply with the judge's decision.
“We understand the expectation of transparency in today’s society which is why we changed our local law to make these reports available going forward," he said. "However, for 20 plus years under both Democrat and Republican leadership, county employees operated with an expectation of privacy in filling out these reports and we felt we owed it to those past and present employees to honor that. The court ruled otherwise so we will comply.”
County lawmakers are required to file financial disclosure statements on an annual basis. Under the county's ethics rules, which date back to 1996, copies of the disclosures were not made available to the public. The rules allowed the statements to be viewed only by local law enforcement and other officials who may be involved in reviewing a complaint related to an alleged ethics violation.
In 2019, under pressure from members of the open government coalition, the county legislature amended the local law making disclosure forms filed in 2019 and after to be subject to state Freedom of Information Law. All statements filed prior to 2019 were not covered under the amendment and therefore remained off limits to the public.
On Aug. 15, the New York Coalition for Open Government filed a FOIL request seeking copies of the annual financial disclosure statements filed by county legislators between 2013 and 2019. The FOIL request was denied by the county.
In February, UB's Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic filed a lawsuit on behalf of the coalition in Niagara County Supreme Court. The lawsuit sought to overturn the local law keeping county disclosure statements from the public. The coalition argued that the local law violated New York state’s Freedom of Information Law.
Coalition President Paul Wolf noted that Niagara County was the only county in New York with a law on the books that prevented the public from viewing the contents of lawmakers' financial disclosure documents.
"This never should have required a lawsuit but Niagara County officials stubbornly refused to correct their mistake," Wolf said.