Huffpost Politics

Paterson's Secretive Senate Selection Process May Violate State Law

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ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. David Paterson's secretive process to select Hillary Rodham Clinton's successor in the U.S. Senate conflicts with his campaign promises to open up government, and New York's top regulator of open government laws says it appears to violate state law.

Just days from announcing his choice, Paterson won't identify "about 10" people who he said are in the running to follow Clinton, President-elect Barack Obama's designated secretary of state. The governor won't release the blank questionnaire he sent to each candidate looking for background information. He won't turn over their completed forms.

"The process is confidential," is the stock answer from his office.

Keeping the questions posed to Senate hopefuls secret appears to violate the state's post-Watergate freedom of information laws, according to Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, the state agency that regulates enforcement of the good-government laws.

"How could it not be public? It's a blank form," said Freeman, a lawyer who since 1976 has been the top state employee advising government and the public on interpretation of the public officers' law.

The names of those under consideration also should be disclosed, Freeman said.

"In my mind, the identities of those seeking one of the highest offices in the land would not rise to the level of unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," Freeman told The Associated Press in an interview.

Freeman, who issues opinions and make recommendations but does not have the authority to sue for the release of public records, said at least some of the answers by candidates in their background checks probably should be public as well.

State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo didn't respond to a question of whether he supported the secretive process.

Cuomo has refused to say if he is seeking the Senate seat but is widely considered to be high on the list. The perceived front-runner is Caroline Kennedy, who has sought the job much more publicly than the members of Congress and other elected officials said to be interested in it.

Some case law also would appear to go against Paterson. A court found that not even a village board could legally go into a closed-door executive session to discuss filling a vacant seat. Freeman said state law in some ways recognizes less privacy protection for those in public office or seeking public office compared to private citizens.

"Their personal privacy does not trump the public's right to know who their next senator will be," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Horner said the need is particularly acute in light of accusations that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell to the highest bidder his appointment for Obama's vacant Senate seat.

"So why doesn't Governor Paterson get the candidates to pledge they won't raise campaign funds for him, so his appointment is not seen as just in the best of interest of his own political position?" Horner said.

Paterson's spokesmen wouldn't respond to that question Monday.

Paterson said Monday that he hasn't publicly disclosed the information he has received from potential candidates because the request wasn't "a government action. That was a personal request I made of the candidates. Some of the information was rather private."

The job of appointing a senator to serve until 2010 is Paterson's alone. At a news conference, he said he wouldn't release the background information he requested of candidates, which he said is "personal."

"The law is on his side as far as whether he has to do any this with transparency," said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the League of Women Voters. "But good government is not on his side here."

A copy of the questionnaire to applicants, obtained by The New York Times after Paterson's office refused to release it, asks about finances and job history, but not about policy positions.

"I don't think I've heard any public positions," Bartoletti said. She noted that most of the hopefuls are in office and so have a record for the public to judge. The exception is Kennedy, who has never held public office and had long guarded her political opinions and privacy.

In 2005, then-Sen. Paterson relied on sarcasm when some of Albany's notorious secrecy was peeled back after some outrage by himself, voters and good-government groups.

"I'm astounded that I'm here," said Paterson at his first public budget negotiation that included minority party leaders.

Then, as a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006, reform was central to his platform shared by Eliot Spitzer, whom Paterson succeeded as governor last year following a prostitution scandal.

"Reform is the biggest joke that the Legislature tries to perpetrate on the public, and the public is not laughing," Paterson said in 2006.

"This governor ran on a ticket whose major thrust was government reform and that's what people thought they would get when they elected that team," Bartoletti said. "I think everybody is watching."

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Associated Press Writers Michael Virtanen in Albany and Samantha Gross in New York City contributed to this report.

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