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Blair Horner: NY's Ethics Oversight Moves Into The Spotlight

As Albany moved closer to a budget deal, a new controversy emerged.  According to reporting in the New York Times and the Buffalo News, Governor Cuomo’s pandemic leadership book deal was likely worth $4 million.  This reporting also raised a new wrinkle – that the governor’s staff was involved in pulling together the draft of that book and pitching it to publishers and the public.

The reports that the governor’s staff and state resources were used to write the book should not only force scrutiny of the allegations, but should shine a spotlight on the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) -- the state’s ethics watchdog -- as well.

The governor’s office responded by stating that the governor’s staff that were involved in the book did so on “their own time” and that the use of any state resources in the drafting of the book was merely “incidental.” 

According to media reports, JCOPE staff gave the go ahead for the governor to sign a book deal last summer.  According to letters between the governor’s office and the JCOPE staff, the precedent that had been set in the governor’s previous book deal – and other ethics opinions – gave the staff the authority to agree to the governor’s request and not seek approval of the full board of JCOPE.

A review of the correspondence shows the governor’s office never told the JCOPE staff the amount of the book agreement or how the deal was structured, which should have been information that JCOPE requested.  In its authorization letter to the governor, JCOPE specifically stated as conditions for approval that the governor could not work on the book during his “work hours,” that no staff time and no state resources could be used in the work to draft the book. 

The coverage reports that the governor either ignored those rules or believed there was a way to circumvent the agreement conditions on technicalities.  In any event, JCOPE must review the facts revealed in the media’s reporting and the governor’s defense.

This latest controversy raises serious questions about JCOPE itself.  For example, as mentioned earlier, media reports have stated that staff worked on the book during their personal time.  Did JCOPE approve of such activity?  The JCOPE staff apparently did not request information on the value of the book deal.  A book deal worth millions is incredible and knowing that seems important.  What is the rationale for not requesting such important information?

It also has been reported that the governor agreed to give a speech to a NYC law firm and that the firm agreed to buy the governor’s books as part of the arrangement.  Did JCOPE approve this arrangement? 

These reports do not mean that all JCOPE’s commissioners or all its staff have behaved inappropriately.  But this story shines an unflattering spotlight on the agency and its decade-long track record.

Almost since its creation in 2011, JCOPE has been a punching bag and punchline among state government observers.  Instead of being designed as an independent watchdog, it was set up as a political creature, structured to look out for the interests of political leaders who by law appoint the commissioners, not necessarily the public’s best interests.

So, what should happen next?  Here are some ideas:

1.      The Senate and Assembly should immediately convene a joint inquiry into JCOPE.  The Commissioners and staff – and former Commissioners – should be required to submit sworn testimony about the actions of the agency. 

2.      Require that all Commissioners and staff be sworn to secrecy when considering a vote on whether to commence an investigation and that they pledge a fiduciary responsibility to the public, not their appointing authorities.  Leaks have led to at least one Commissioner resigning.

3.      Reforms should be acted upon.  There are measures under consideration in the Legislature right now that would eliminate some of the structural weaknesses and lack of public accountability in New York’s ethics laws.  Once the budget is done, those measures must be taken up.  (A recent report by the New York City Bar Association calling for JCOPE to be abolished and making reform recommendations can be found here.)

4.      Lawmakers should act on a reform to replace JCOPE with a constitutionally established state ethics watchdog.  Such legislation has been advanced by state Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Robert Carroll (S.855/A.1929). 

The lack of a clearly independent ethics watchdog undermines the public’s confidence in its own government.  For those who are subject to unethical conduct or those falsely accused, the lack of independent ethics oversight denies them vindication.

New Yorkers deserve an independent ethics watchdog, one with the resources and legal support to take on even a governor without fear or favor.

Blair Horner is executive 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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