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Joint Commission on Public Ethics meets behind closed doors

Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders announced their appointments to the new Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE early last week. It was the last possible day before the commission was, under law, required to begin its work.

The first meeting was held late Thursday. It was a private teleconference, and no public notice was given.  The Associated Press first reported the existence of the meeting.

 It’s all perfectly legal, since the commission is not subject to the state’s open meeting laws.  But government reform advocates say it could set a negative tone, before the ethics panel has even gotten off the ground.  Dick Dadey, with Citizens Union, says he’s not overly concerned yet.

“They did have a secret meeting,” said Dadey, who says he thinks that’s “fine” as long as it was purely for organizational purposes.

“When they in fact hold a more formal first meeting they should send a very important signal to the public by having an open meeting,” Dadey said.  

According to published reports, the meeting was organizational in nature, although the resignation of  former ethics commission executive director Barry Ginsberg was accepted.  No replacement has been announced.

The chair of JCOPE  is Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore.  Questions have been raised about DiFiore’s role as the current head of the state’s District Attorneys Association, and whether the group, which weighs in on legislation, engages in lobbying.

Governor Cuomo, who appointed DiFiore, says he doesn’t think that will be a conflict, he says most of the association’s activity consists of elected officials weighing in on bills presented by other elected officials, in the legislature.

The governor says that fact that he’s chosen a prosecutor to serve as chair of the new ethics panel demonstrates that he intends to clean up corruption.

“That was a signal that says we’re taking this very, very, very  seriously,”  Cuomo said.

The governor admits that he’s had trouble filling positions on the ethics panel, as well as in all walks of government, because of the state’s troubled reputation in recent years as corrupt and incompetent. He says “many” turned him down.

“When you go into the public sector you just expose yourself to criticism, scrutiny, etcetera,” said Cuomo.

The governor says serving on the ethics commission is “especially difficult”.

“There’s no pay to speak of, it’s been highly controversial in the past, there’s very little upside,” Cuomo said. “And there’s just a lot of  downside .”

Dadey, with Citizens Union, agrees that DiFiore will likely be able to separate her two roles and not run into any conflicts.  He says the new ethics panel is receiving extra scrutiny because of the state’s reputation for corruption. Several former state lawmakers have been jailed, indicted, or face trials.  Dadey says the mistakes of the old Commission on Public Integrity, or CPI , are haunting the new ethics panel. The former commission had a controversial record, including accusations that some commission members colluded with the administration of former Governor Eliot Spitzer during the investigation of the so called Troopergate scandal.  Dadey says JCOPE will need to prove that it’s fair and independent.

“JCOPE will need to be very deliberative and operate with as much a transparency as is allowed,” said Dadey. “Without infringing upon the rights of those who are being charged.”  

A time for the Joint Commission on Public Ethics first open meeting has not yet been announced.

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.