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Government watchdog groups are pushing for ethics reform in the New York state budget

The front side of the state Capitol building in Albany, New York.
Daniel Case
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The front side of the state Capitol building in Albany, New York.

Government watchdog groups are making a push to include ethics reform in the state budget, and while Gov. Kathy Hochul promised to overhaul the state’s troubled ethics oversight commission, the Legislature has not agreed to the proposal so far.

Hochul, who took over when former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned amid multiple scandals, promised to “blow up” the troubled state ethics commission. Cuomo controlled the majority of appointments on the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, and critics say in return, the commission protected him from ethics violations.

Evan Davis, a reform advocate who was former Gov. Mario Cuomo’s counsel, said the state has faced continuing ethical challenges that need to stop.

“New York has a serious problem,” Davis said. “We have recurring, high-level corruption, and we have an ethics enforcement agency that is so lax that people call it a joke.”

Davis said the reputation for corruption hurts New York’s ability to grow businesses and jobs and to foster public trust in government.

The government reform groups outlined an alternative plan for an ethics commission.

Laura Ladd Bierman of the New York State League of Women Voters said the plan would create a seven-member selection committee. The governor, Legislature leaders, the state comptroller and the attorney general would each get one seat on that committee. That body would then choose a five-member ethics commission that would handle ethics complaints and potential violations of the law.

Bierman said having a two-step process helps to further insulate commission members from possible influence by politicians.

And she said unlike the current structure, where the governor chooses the panel's executive director, the new commission would choose its own leader.

“Just to flag, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the chair is selected by the governor,” Bierman said. “That would no longer happen under our model.”

Members of the public could apply to serve on the commission, but lobbyists, big-money donors to political campaigns and those holding contracts with the state would be banned.

The proposed commission also would be better equipped to handle accusations of sexual harassment. Erica Vladimer is with the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which is made up of former and current legislative staff who have experienced or reported sexual harassment.

She said her group offered advice on how to create a commission that is more receptive to investigating harassment complaints.

“Public employees can no longer wait for elected and appointed officials to finally be held accountable for abuse of power,” Vladimer said. “We know how interconnected different types of corruption and abuse of power can be.”

Vladimer accused former state Senate Leader Jeff Klein of forcibly kissing her, a charge Klein denied. JCOPE began an investigation in 2018, and has never revealed any details about the probe or said whether it is continuing.

Hochul’s proposal, released in her state budget plan, would set up a rotating board of 15 law school deans to decide cases. The Legislature rejected that idea.

Davis said the groups presented their plan to lawmakers last week, and he said legislators were receptive. Democrats in the Senate discussed its merits in a closed-door party conference meeting, which he said was encouraging.

“They asked questions, which is good,” Davis said. “They showed interest, which is good.”

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group said the new ethics commission should be included in the state budget because it involves changes to and funding for a state agency. But he said groups will not accept any plan that is just a superficial reconfiguration of JCOPE.

“We don’t want the deck chairs on the Titanic being rearranged,” Horner said. “We want the real independent ethics commission that the public’s been promised.”

The state budget is due on April 1.

Copyright 2022 WXXI News. To see more, visit WXXI News.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.