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Proposed Bill Would Criminalize Destroying Constituent Case Files

Assemblyman says legislation would serve to protect residents state-wide.

Recently I joined with colleagues in the Assembly and Senate in a multi-partisan announcement of legislation that will make it a crime for an outgoing elected official to destroy their case files.

As elected officials, it is our duty to serve and assist the people that we represent. One of the most important and effective ways that we do so is through our casework.  Constituents can call or write their legislator's office requesting assistance for myriad of concerns.  These issues vary, from constituents seeking help with legal matters, to people in search of assistance with their housing, to life-or-death situations involving medical insurance coverage.

In turn, the legislator and their staff will work within the community and reach out to various related organizations in order to resolve those matters.  The large majority of these cases require significant work from both the constituent and the legislator and their staff.  

Depending on the particulars, these cases can take months, or sometimes years, to resolve. In that time span, it is common for a new legislator to be elected while much of the previous legislator's casework remains unresolved.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of politics, it is also common for a defeated legislator to leave their former office in shambles or destroy casework vital to a constituent in order to spite their successor. When the newly elected official takes over, they have no way of knowing who needs assistance.  Inevitably, phone calls come in from constituents inquiring about their cases. In general, in these instances it is difficult for either side to track down all of the progress that has been made.

Families have been promised assistance, only to be left holding the bag, and seniors who have reached out about their medicine are left in the dark. These are cases of dirty politics at its worst.  For elected officials to dispose of open case files is unconscionable; politicians have been allowed to get away with it for far too long.  I have drafted legislation to address this problem, enlisting the support of members from both houses on both sides of the aisle to send a message loud and clear.

My bill, named the "Constituent Casework Protection Act," would establish a misdemeanor crime punishable by a fine of $10,000 to $25,000 and the possibility of up to a year in jail.  This penalty would apply to any public officer found guilty of intentionally destroying an active constituent case file, including any correspondence — written or electronic — between an elected official and a constituent or any correspondence between an elected official and another party pertaining to the constituent's request for assistance.

This is not a partisan issue and it is something that people have dealt with for far too long - most likely since the early days of our government.  I plan to send the language from my bill to Governor Cuomo to include in his ethics reform proposal, and it is my hope that we can enact this legislation before the next election cycle to prevent further cases of New Yorkers being neglected due to political malice.

Michael Watt February 13, 2011 at 05:58 PM
Please specify that the records need only be stored electronically, lest this turn into a boondoggle for the storage industry and an expensive paperwork nightmare for the taxpayer.

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