By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY - The state Joint Commission on Public Ethics on Tuesday made changes to its exemption policy for special-interest groups looking to shield their donors.
The changes come as JCOPE says it's trying to balance public disclosure of groups' major donors with the need to protect donors' privacy to keep them from harm.
"Presumptively, these should be a matter of public record. There has to be, though, I think some exception made," said JCOPE board member Ellen Yaroshefsky at its meeting today.
The pro-choice group, NARAL, was the first to receive an exemption, saying that their donors could be targeted by anti-abortion groups. Other groups have since said they would seek an exemption, such as pro-life groups.
JCOPE said it would change regulations to require the public disclosure of special interests and lobbying groups seeking to exempt their donor lists from being made public. And each group's reason for the exemption would be made public.
"Obviously, any exemptions that any group applies for, I think it goes without saying, the commission will vet those and consider the credibility" of them, said JCOPE chairman Daniel Horwitz.
Any pending application of a group seeking an exemption could be modified before the board starts reviewing them, likely next month.
JCOPE, which oversees lobbying and ethics in state government, also tweaked the language that would allow a group to block its donor list from being public. The move increases the threshold to prove that releasing the donor list would be harmful to the group and its donors.
The regulations had stated: "The commission shall grant an exemption to disclose a source of a contribution, if the client filer shows by clear and convincing evidence that disclosure of the source will cause a reasonable probability of harm, threats, harassment or reprisals to the source or individuals or property affiliated with the source."
The wording was changed Tuesday to replace "reasonable probability" to "substantial likelihood" -- which the commission suggested would be a more stringent standard to meet.