WASHINGTON - A prestigious bar association that represents many of the public finance and other lawyers who practice in New York City is considering adopting its own policy on pay-to-play practices in the municipal market, several attorneys said yesterday.
The group, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, represents about 20,000 lawyers practicing in the city, including Cyrus Vance, a lawyer with Simpson, Thatcher A Bartlett who served as secretary of state under former President Jimmy Carter, and John Feerick, dean of the Fordham School of Law.
The association's special committee on government ethics is currently drafting a policy position on pay-to-play practices in the municipal market that it hopes to present to the board's executive committee early next year, said Peter Bienstock, the head of the committee.
But it is not yet clear what that draft policy position will include, said Bienstock, a lawyer with Cohen Hennessey & Bienstock who formerly headed the New York State Commission on Government Ethics, a group established for a three-year period by Gov. Mario Cuomo to investigate the causes and effects of government corruption throughout New York state.
But the policy position could go further than the policy statement on political contributions that the National Association of Bond Lawyers approved proved earlier this year, said one attorney who did not want to be identified.
The bond lawyers group approved a policy statement last February that calls on law firms with municipal finance practices to disclose their political contributions under state or local laws or in annual reports that are submitted to nationally recognized or state repositories.
The statement stopped short of calling for a voluntary ban on political contributions and said firms could continue to make them unless they were for the purpose of obtaining or retaining bond business.
Thus far, only one law firm - and none of the firms of the associations directors - has adopted the policy statement approved by the group's board. The NABL members have had varying views about the issue, prompting one lawyer to quip recently that the association "can't decide whether the bird on its logo is an eagle or an ostrich."
"NABL was dealing with law firms all across the country and was restricted to some extent by the fact that these firms were in different states with different laws and environments," said the attorney who did not want to be identified. "The city bar could deal with the issue more broadly because it only has to worry about lawyers practicing in New York," he said.
Bienstock would not disclose where the committee might be headed in drafting a policy position on the issue.
"Anything's possible" is all that he would say in an interview yesterday.
The committee began to consider drafting a policy on pay-to-play practices after some prominent association members like Vance and Feerick became interested in the issue and thought the association should take a stance. several attorneys said.
"The committee has a history of being in the forefront of difficult issues," said the attorney who did not want to be identified.
Committee members met last week with two NABL members and an SEC official, Bienstock confirmed.
The two NABL members, Dale Collinson, a lawyer with Willkie Farr & Gallagher, and Howard Zucker, a lawyer with Hawkins, Delafield & Wood, gave committee members NABL's views about political contributions and summarized the group's policy statement, Bienstock and other attorneys said.
Paul Maco, an attorney-adviser at the Securities and Exchange Commission and a former NABL member, gave the committee the SEC's views of the issue, they said.
Simon Lorne, the SEC's general counsel, also was invited to speak to committee members but could not attend the meeting, the attorneys said.
Lorne blasted the bond lawyers in a speech last month for failing to follow in the footsteps of broker-dealers and adopt a voluntary ban on political contributions. Lorne told an American Bar Association group that it was "shocking" that NABL had done so little to confront the perception that pay-to-play practices are prevalent in the municipal market.
Besides the voluntary ban, broker-dealers have also played a role in getting the Municipal Securities Rule-making making Board and SEC to adopt a rule aimed at banning pay-to-play practices. The MSRB's Rule G-37, which took effect last April after the SEC approved it, generally bars broker-dealers who make political contributions to issuer-clients from doing business with those clients for two years afterward.
Alabama bond dealer William Blount, however, is challenging the constitutionality of the rule in a case, Blount v. SEC, that is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit.