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Witnesses testify of dysfunction on state ethics commission at public hearing

J. Stephen Conn

A panel commissioned to review practices at New York’s troubled ethics commission held it’s one and only public hearing Wednesday, as its chairman says lack of staff and excess of paperwork may make it difficult to meet the group’s November 1 deadline.

Its website to help the public decipher the state’s complicated lobbying structure is nearly incomprehensible,  it’s built- in commissioner vetoes of politically sensitive investigations causes it to operate “like no other respected” ethics body, and the near-constant closed door meetings give it the “appearance of obfuscation and shielding."

Those are just some of the comments from witnesses before a panel tasked with reviewing the state’s controversial Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE.

Laura Able, with the Lawyers Alliance, an advocacy group for low income New Yorkers,  likened JCOPE to a “puppy."

“Who’s so busy yapping at passersby that when the burglar walks through the front door  it’s too tired to do anything about it,” Able said.

Able says JCOPE spends too much time chasing down information from small, community based organizations, when the information is also easily available publicly elsewhere, and ignores larger, more egregious violations.

JCOPE has the authority to go after bigger fish, but is not using  it says Daniel Karson with the  New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Government Ethics. He says 13 state lawmakers have been convicted of crimes or fined for what he calls “self-dealing," where the legislator set up a not-for-profit in their name or in a family member’s name, then directed state funds to the organizations.

Karson says JCOPE has the power to ban lawmakers from engaging in outside activities that create the appearance of impropriety because they or a family member would personally profit from the arrangement.

“We believe that JCOPE can take direct action now without any enabling legislation, to end this abuse,” Karson said.

And he says at a time of rising corruption convictions, which include the indictment of both leaders of the legislature in 2015, JCOPE’s number of actual investigations has been low, and with the exception of a $300,000 fine against former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, accused of sexual harassment, the fines have been “meagre” and often directed at small community organizations that don’t have the money to pay the fines.

“And so these penalties are illusory,” said Karson. “And they are not serving as a deterrent to unethical conduct in the state.”

Evan Davis, former president of the New York City Bar Association, and a former counsel to Gov. Mario Cuomo says JCOPE also conflicts of interest involving camping contributions to elected officials, instead sloughing it off to the state Board of Elections, which has a poor track record of pursuing any alleged violations.

“There’s no basis in the law for that conclusion,” Davis said.

Talia Warber, withthe reform group Citizen’s Union, says JCOPE’s website is poorly designed and difficult to decipher, and the commission could use more IT support to upgrade and organize the data from lobbying groups that it collects, so that the public can be better informed.

“It is a confusing system,” Warber said. “It’s very hard to do a broad assessment of lobbying activities.”

Citizens Union also recommends that JCOPE commissioners make themselves subject to the state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Laws, and stop doing most of their business in private executive sessions, which it makes it look like they are hiding something.

The review panel is due to issue its final report in two weeks, but panel chairman and former state Sen. Dale Volker cast doubt on that deadline, saying the panel has no paid staff, and is inundated with paperwork.

“I did ask the governor for staff,” said Volker. “Because JCOPE in the meantime got three new people. I want to be very honest about it.”

A minor controversy was created recently when JCOPE’s commissioners learned that the outgoing executive director, a close Cuomo associate, had without telling anyone, hired three new paid employees for the ethics commission.

Chairman Volker says despite all the obstacles, he’s hopeful that the report will be finished by November 1.

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.