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Reform groups: Scrap state ethics panel

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A national report finds that New York state’s ethics panel is among the worst in the nation. Reform groups say that’s not news to them and have called for an overhaul of the commission.

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization, surveyed state ethics panels around the country and found that New York’s ranked near the bottom for independence and transparency. The group gives the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, an “F” rating for its lack of oversight.

Alex Camarda with Reinvent Albany said his group and other reform organizations have been saying for years that JCOPE is fatally flawed. He said one inherent conflict is that the commissioners are appointed by the governor and the Legislature, the entities that they are supposed to regulate.

“It’s appointed by the very elected officials that it oversees,” Camarda said.

Camarda said another problem is that it takes only a few commissioners to block an investigation of an elected official or state employee.

“Instead of a majority vote, it has this very convoluted system where three members can actually block an investigation from being opened, if they disagree, even while the commission has 14 members,” he said. 

There have been numerous corruption scandals in state government in recent years. Several former leaders of the Legislature and some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s associates -- including his former closest aide, Joe Percoco -- have been sentenced to prison terms.

None of those crimes were brought to light by JCOPE. They were instead the result of federal investigations. 

This month’s meeting of JCOPE was scheduled to last four hours, but just 12 minutes of that time was open to the public. Much of it centered on renovations to the commission’s office space in Buffalo and New York City.

At the meeting, the executive director of the ethics panel, Seth Agata, submitted his resignation. He will take a job at a private law firm in Manhattan after the June commission meeting.

The announcement was made by JCOPE Chair Michael Rozen, who said a search for a replacement will begin immediately. 

Agata is the third director of the commission. Like his predecessors, he’s a former aide to Cuomo. Camarda said, at the very least, the ethics commission should appoint a new executive director who is independent of the people that they regulate.

Agata testified as a witness at Percoco’s federal trial. But during Agata’s tenure at JCOPE, the commission resisted a lawsuit brought by Republicans to force it to investigate Percoco for possible violations of state laws. A judge eventually ordered the vote. JCOPE confirmed members had cast ballots in a private meeting, but declined to say whether any investigation is moving forward.

Reinvent Albany, along with other reform groups, including Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, said the only good way to fix JCOPE is to start over with a new ethics panel. They wrote a letter to Cuomo and Legislature leaders, asking for a complete overhaul of JCOPE, and the Legislative Ethics Commission, which oversees accusations of wrongdoing against senators and Assembly members.

“What we would like to see, ideally, is a body that’s established in the constitution that not only handles ethics but also looks at campaign finance and other issues,” Camarda said. “And is appointed by an independent body, for example, the judiciary, so that the appointing authorities aren’t the very people who are regulated by the ethics body.”

Walter McClure, a JCOPE spokesman, had no comment about the Center for Public Integrity’s ratings, but he said that the commission is simply functioning under the rules set up by the governor and the Senate and Assembly.

“It is up to the executive and the Legislature to make decisions about the laws that govern what we do and how we do it,” he said.

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.