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Politics and Government

Hochul pledges ethics overhaul, says current system is 'flawed'

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Mike Groll
/
Office of the Governor

While the state Legislature considers ways to bolster enforcement of the state’s ethics laws for public officials, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday that the current system of enforcing those rules is “flawed,” and that she wants to “turn it upside down.”

Those comments were targeted at JCOPE, the state’s ethics agency, which lawmakers and good government groups have said isn’t truly independent from influence by outside actors.

“Most New Yorkers question why you’d have elected officials picking the people charged with investigating or evaluating their work,” Hochul said. “The whole premise behind it is flawed.”

JCOPE is comprised of 14 members, almost half of which are appointed by the governor. The rest are appointed by leaders from the Legislature, who are forced to pick appointees of their same political party when there’s a vacancy.

That’s led to times when members of the commission were accused of siding with whoever appointed them, or members of their party.

“I want to make sure we are not stacking these bodies with our friends and with our allies, as has been in the past,” Hochul said. “You’re not going to restore the trust of the people of New York if you keep playing the same games over and over.”

Hochul came under fire Tuesday for her first two appointments to JCOPE, one of which was a previous appointment by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

That was announced moments before JCOPE met to discuss a handful of investigatory matters related to Cuomo, including a potential probe into his alleged use of state resources last year to write his pandemic memoir.

Cuomo had asked JCOPE for an ethics opinion on the book when he started to write it, and staff for the agency told him it was fine — as long as state resources weren’t used.

At Tuesday’s meeting, JCOPE was considering whether to revoke that ethics opinion, or let it stand as is. If the opinion had been scrapped, Cuomo may have had to pay part of his proceeds from the book to the state.

But when it came up for a vote, half of the commission’s members voted against revoking the opinion — including both of Hochul’s appointees — saying they didn’t want to do so without a formal investigation into the matter.

“I think we have a process,” said James Dering, a former Cuomo appointee who was chosen by Hochul Tuesday to act as the commission’s chair, who stepped down from the agency last month. Dering isn’t new; he was already a member of JCOPE before Tuesday.

“I think we have to operate pursuant to statutes, and I think that process has to be followed,” he said.

Some interpreted that as proof that Hochul chose appointees who would side with Cuomo, but she pushed back strongly on those claims Wednesday, saying there’s no reason why she would do that.

“What is my interest in doing so? Someone has to ask that question,” Hochul said. “So before people make certain assumptions that are highly erroneous — they are wrong. I’m going to let them know right now that they’re wrong.”

Hochul said Wednesday that she announced her appointments the day before because of a time crunch. Without them, JCOPE wouldn’t have been able to act on certain matters. But she pledged a more deliberative process moving forward.

“We are absolutely going to be doing the proper vetting to find individuals,” Hochul said.

The state Legislature is considering several ideas to strengthen JCOPE — or replace it altogether. Few of those ideas have become law. Hochul said she wants that to change.

“I’d rather have had the time to reform it and turn it upside down and start over, literally, with input from our elected officials, our good government groups, and everybody else that has an opinion on this,” Hochul said.