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Politics and Government

Panel reviewing state ethics commission to hold hearings

Karen Dewitt
WRVO News (file photo)

Fixing the state’s troubled ethics commission will be the subject of hearings in Albany on October 7 and in New York City October 17. Reform groups say they are ready with suggestions.

The panel, created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in May, is tasked with looking at ways to improve the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, which has been widely criticized as secretive and ineffective. JCOPE was launched by Cuomo and the state legislature during the governor’s first months in office back in 2011.

Dick Dadey, with Citizens Union, says it’s a chance for New Yorkers to weigh in on how to clean up public corruption.

“This will be the first time that New Yorkers will have an opportunity to voice their interests and concerns over state ethics and oversight and enforcement,” Dadey said.

Citizens Union and other groups have already spoken to the panel in private to offer their suggestions to fix JCOPE, but also intend to speak at the hearings. Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says his group was skeptical of the commission from the beginning. He says the central issue is whether the ethics commission is independent enough to do its job. Blair says the 14 appointees can band together in factions to veto any probes that might harm a legislative leader or the governor. And he says Cuomo appointees have too much power to steer the hiring of commission staff, which has led to the governor’s close allies serving as executive director and chief counsel for the commission.

“He’s been able to orchestrate the votes, we believe, to ensure that the last two executive directors were former employees of the governor’s office,” Blair said. “We don’t think that should be the case.”

At the last JCOPE meeting, held over the summer, there was a rare public outburst by some appointees after the commission’s second executive director resigned to take a job in the Cuomo administration. They feared that the governor would engineer the hiring of yet another Cuomo associate as executive director.

The commissioners were also angered that before the previous executive director left her job, she hired two new employees -- both Cuomo associates -- to work at the commission, when the appointed members are supposed to choose the staff.

In a time when both former leaders of the legislature are under federal indictment for running major corruption schemes, and several other lawmakers have been arrested and jailed, JCOPE has not announced any major punitive actions or findings of wrongdoing, and any probes they have undertaken have been closed to the public.

Horner says the he hopes the review panel will look broadly at a larger restructuring of JCOPE and “push the envelope” in its ultimate recommendations.

“It’s supposed an independent watch dog that not only  barks, but bites when necessary,” he said. “We think that New Yorkers are not getting that, and part of it is the way it’s structured under the law.”

Dadey, with Citizens Union, says he thinks that despite all of the secrecy JCOPE has done reasonably well, given its limitations. And he says the commission’s insistence on greater disclosure of legislator’s outside income helped lead to the federal cases against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Leader Dean Skelos. Both are charged with illegally monetizing their elected positions by accepting millions of dollars from law firms, real estate developers, and other private businesses in exchange for political favors.   

“I don’t think that we would have seen these two arrests were it not for the amount of disclosure around  legislators’ outside income that has happened,” said Dadey.

And he says many of JCOPE’s secrecy rules and the power to quell investigations came at the insistence of the former leaders of the legislature, who are now facing corruption trails in November.

“One could argue that they were protecting their own individual skins in the crafting of this legislation back in 2011,” Dadey said.  

He says perhaps their successors, Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Leader John Flanagan, who say they are not going to accept outside income, may be more amendable to changes.

The review panel’s report is due November 1.