Richard Briffault: Charting a Pragmatic Path to a Good Government

Richard Briffault. Image credit: CityLaw.

Richard Briffault, Chair of the Conflicts of Interest Board, brings a long record of public service to his current position. A product of the City public school system, Briffault graduated from Columbia University and obtained his law degree from Harvard. He was broadly interested in government as a young man and quickly entered public service, working from 1980 to 1982 as an assistant counsel to Governor Hugh Carey. The position gave him broad opportunity to learn how the State engaged with agencies, with the City, and with the private sector.

Briffault began teaching at Columbia Law School in 1983 and is now the Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation. Briffault has for decades taught state and local government where he leads classes that address issues on which he also works in his personal capacity such as voting rights, reapportionment and campaign finance.

Briffault served as a consultant to the City Charter Commissions of 1988 and 1989 which extensively overhauled City government in the wake of a Supreme Court decision finding the board of estimate unconstitutional. The Charter Commissions established new City agencies charged with ensuring ethical government, including the Campaign Finance Board and the Conflicts of Interest Board.

Briffault says the 1988 and1989 charters have proved effective and a resilient. The mayor-city council relationship, with all its ups and downs, has reliably functioned as the replacement for the old board of estimate. The role of borough presidents remains somewhat unresolved, but Briffault does not think that the fault lies with the charter; rather it is an ongoing challenge to balance the powers of local neighborhoods against the needs of the City as a whole. The role of the public advocate is also unresolved with each holder of the office redefining that position.

Briffault has had a long association with the Citizen’s Union. At Citizen’s Union, Briffault provides counsel on the issues Briffault sees as crucial for making democracy work: campaign finance, voting, lobbying, ethics and the procedural rules of legislature.

Briffault has published widely on state and local government issues in academic, legal, and mainstream journals. He attempts in his writing to take account of political realities. Briffault says that pragmatism is central to understanding government ethics. Public servants should be held to high standards, but the rules cannot set unrealistic standards because it falls to people to carry them out.  Rule makers need to assure the public that the people that work for government are working on behalf of the public, but without making public service impossibly unattractive.

Briffault judges New York City’s public funding system of election as effective, while still leaving room for private fundraising. Campaign finance oversight is critical to ethical government because public officials will inevitably be affected by the interests of their donors. Public funding of campaigns helps build a healthy democracy because public funding makes it possible for the non-wealthy to run for public office.

Briffault found frustrating his brief tenure as a member of the 2013-2014 State Moreland Commission charged by Governor Andrew Cuomo with investigating violations of election, campaign-finance, and fundraising laws. The Commission had established guiding principles and completed some basic legal research before Cuomo disbanded the Commission. Briffault expressed pride in the Commission’s preliminary report that provided guidance on how to fix some of the issues Albany faces such as misuse of campaigns funds and the lack of transparency in fundraising. The Commission intended to work for a period of years and anticipated producing a substantial body of research. Briffault is now skeptical about potential reform in Albany; if the convictions of Assembly Member Sheldon Silver and State Senator Dean Skelos did not spur significant movement, it is unlikely anything will.

Briffault, as chair of the City’s Conflicts of Interest Board, works to bring a mix of principle and pragmatism to the Board’s decisions. He says a significant role of the Board is to clarify and communicate the City’s ethics rules through education and guidance to public servants as well as the public. The Board must also always keep in sight that public officials are human beings and specific cases need to be considered individually and with flexibility.

Briffault says that the City’s conflicts of interest system, while imperfect, is working fairly well. The City has established a reasonably good ethical environment in which the rules are taken seriously and where people face real consequences when misconduct is uncovered.


By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law.)


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