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Blair Horner: Ethics Stays In The News

When Albany is in the dog days of summer, it is usually quiet at the state Capitol.  Lawmakers are doing whatever they do during the summer and, in recent decades, the governor is usually downstate.

But this has not been a typical summer.  The arrests and indictments of Albany’s legislative leaders earlier in the year and the recent convictions of other leaders have kept the issue of ethics reform alive.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the governor continues to do all that he can to keep throwing cold water on the calls for action.  Most recently he smothered calls for a special legislative session devoted solely to ethics reforms, declaring:  "I haven't heard anything from the Senate or the Assembly saying, 'Our minds are changed, we now want to pass a bill that we didn't want to pass.' So for the taxpayers to spend a lot of money to bring the legislators back to Albany for the same outcome they had several weeks ago makes no sense.”

It is certainly out of character for this governor to allow someone else to dictate his actions.  Let’s take at face value his statement that lawmakers have rejected, and will continue to reject, his reforms.  What reforms is the governor talking about?  He never mentions them at all.

There is one reform that the governor has not advanced and the legislature has not considered: strengthening the state’s ethics enforcement agencies.

The problems with the state’s leading ethics watchdog bubbled to the surface last week when the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) held its monthly meeting.  Some of the members publicly complained that the governor’s staff had been meddling in its internal affairs (which, if true, is a violation of the law). 

At the meeting, several members questioned whether the governor had too much influence over the agency, which is now looking for its third director in less than four years.  The first had served as Cuomo’s inspector general and worked for Cuomo when he was attorney general.  The second worked for Cuomo in both the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office before that.  She left the commission to join Cuomo’s tax department.

Meddling by the governor is not the only problem:  The agency has been nearly invisible in combatting corruption.  Federal prosecutors, not state ones, have brought the vast majority of the high-profile corruption cases.

When the governor talks about the reforms that he cannot get approved by a recalcitrant legislature, he conveniently ignores the need for reform of the state’s ethics agencies.   And reforms are needed to ensure that ethics is monitored by an independent ethics agency that is looking out for the public interest, not the interests of either the governor or the legislature.  Here are a five needed reforms:

  • In a rare, if not unique, provision, New York law allows JCOPE’s board to include elected officials.  Given the role of the agency in monitoring elected officials, as well as monitoring the lobbying industry (which is also a rich source of campaign contributions), New York should ban the involvement of elected officials from the ethics watchdog panel.
  • New York law also allows the appointees of legislative leaders to veto JCOPE investigations of the legislators.  That provision must be repealed.
  • There should be a “revolving door” limitation that prohibits legislative or executive staff from becoming the top staff of any of the state’s ethics watchdogs.
  • Those executive directors should serve for a fixed term so as to enhance her or his independence from political retribution.  And ethics agencies should be guaranteed budgets that are predictable, adequate, and not subject to political pressures.
  • Ethics agencies should be covered by the provisions of the Freedom of Information and Open Meeting Laws requirements and make all investigation records open to public inspection when a matter is closed, as was the practice of the Temporary State Commission on Lobbying.

New York law requires that an independent commission review the work of JCOPE.  That group has been appointed and is beginning its work.  Its recommendations are due later this year.  When its reactions become public, the governor should use that opportunity to call lawmakers back to get cracking on ethics reforms.
The best laws in the world will not work without real oversight and enforcement.  It’s time New York State’s ethics watchdogs became more independent – entities that not only barked, but were free to bite.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.  

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