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Critics of state ethics commission not giving up


The chair of the state Senate Ethics Committee said even though hearings to fix New York’s dysfunctional ethics panel have been delayed, she’s hopeful that solutions can be reached by the end of the summer.

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi this week canceled a planned hearing that was to feature testimony from the executive director of the troubled Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE. Concerns about whether the hearing was adhering to the state’s Open Meetings Law led to the postponement.

She said once more senators can attend in person instead of over Zoom and a new date is set, she hopes to examine solutions to the state’s poor track record on ethics.  

The Center for Public Integrity, a reform advocacy group, gives New York a grade of D-minus for ethics. Biaggi said JCOPE is dominated by appointees of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and has complex rules that make it hard to carry out investigations or impose punishment.

“JCOPE was set up in a way to fail,” Biaggi said.   

She said the ethics commission seldom launches investigations when allegations of corruption are made, even in the case of former top Cuomo aide Joe Percoco, who was convicted of running bribery and kickback schemes. He is now serving time in federal prison.     

Another issue came up last summer, when the ethics commission staff gave Cuomo permission to write a memoir about the COVID-19 pandemic that earned him $5 million. Commissioners who were appointed by members of the Legislature weren’t told about the governor’s request. Cuomo is now accused of inappropriately using staff to help him write and edit the book, something he denies. Republican commissioners and lawmakers have asked for a probe into the book deal, but have received no answer from JCOPE.

There are also questions about the independence of the commissioners. Recently, a commissioner who is an appointee of the Assembly speaker said that he was a witness to a leak regarding his confidential vote in the Percoco case.

And when probes are conducted, they often take years to complete, or in some cases, never reach a conclusion.

Erica Vladimer was an aide to former Senate co-Leader Jeff Klein in 2015, when she says he forcibly kissed her outside an Albany tavern. Klein denied the charges, and in 2018, he asked JCOPE to look into them. Three years later, Klein is no longer in office after losing a reelection bid, and the case has not been resolved.

Vladimer is now part of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which is made up of former legislative staffers who say they were sexually harassed by lawmakers. She plans to testify at the hearing when it’s rescheduled.

She said JCOPE is ill-equipped to handle sexual harassment complaints and needs to hire experts who can better investigate allegations.

“Bring in an attorney who’s an expert in labor law,” Vladimer said. “Bring in someone from the human rights division.”

Vladimer said there also must be “adequate funding” for the new hires and for the commission.

A bill sponsored by Biaggi would make several changes to JCOPE to make it easier to conduct investigations. A measure by her colleague, Sen. Liz Krueger, would amend the state’s constitution to create a permanent ethics board dominated by appointments by the state’s judges.

Blair Horner is with the New York Public Interest Research Group, which supports a constitutional amendment.

“JCOPE must go,” said Horner, who added the commission is “not structured to be an independent ethics watchdog.”

“This is clearly the reflection of the governor and legislative leaders, not the public’s best interest,” Horner said.

So far, only the State Senate is holding the hearings and backing the proposed reforms. The state Assembly has not yet agreed to making any changes.

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.