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Blair Horner: New York's Ethics Watchdog Under Scrutiny

For over a decade the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) has been the state’s leading ethics watchdog agency.  Its job is to oversee compliance with ethics standards set for the executive branch, in a limited way to do the same for the legislative branch, and to regulate state and local lobbyists and their clients.  Since its inception critics have charged that the structure of the agency is not independent and it is, in fact, a political agency – one in which the leaders of the executive and legislative branches controlled the actions of the agency.

This week, the state Senate’s Ethics Committee will hold a hearing to examine the work of New York’s ethics watchdogs. 

Unfortunately, the evidence has borne out those criticisms.  While the activities of JCOPE have been shrouded in secrecy (largely the result of state laws), reporting by investigative journalists has shed light on this critically important agency.  And the picture that emerges is deeply troubling.  The hard work of digging into JCOPE has been led by the Albany’s Times Union newspaper, which has devoted considerable resources into getting under the hood of JCOPE to see how it operates.  What little the public knows of JCOPE’s inner workings has been through the media, primarily the Times Union.

One issue currently under JCOPE’s consideration is examining the use of public resources for private gain.  Both of Governor Cuomo’s book deals were approved by the JCOPE staff without, it appears, full Commission approval.  It has been reported that some commissioners now believe that such approval should have gone to the full Commission. 

In both cases, the governor’s office argued that there was precedent for staff to decide the issue without going to the full board that directs JCOPE.  In both cases, the governor’s book deals resulted in significant compensation.  How the staff made their decisions and whether they were aware of all the details of the size of the financial compensation is not at all clear. 

Moreover, when the Executive Chamber’s employees requested approval on behalf of the governor, the correspondence was written on state letterhead and may have been written by a government employee working on public time.  These facts raise questions about where JCOPE draws the line in determining when the use of public resources is appropriate and when it is not. 

JCOPE has been criticized from within as well.  Members of the JCOPE board have alleged that the governor was told of the private discussions about allegations that a former top aide to the governor misused public resources.  Under state law, those discussions are supposed to be secret.  As of today, no one is aware of how the governor and his staff were alerted to these internal discussions.

There have been public complaints made by commissioners that JCOPE’s decision-making hinges on a small number of commissioners working with senior staff.  Again, it is not clear if this is true. 

This week’s state Senate’s hearing should be the place were these – and other – questions get raised and answered by JCOPE officials.  The new Executive Director of JCOPE will testify at that hearing, but it is not clear if the Senate plans on interviewing other members of the Commission or the senior-level staff.

Since the public pays for the ethics agency, they should have a right to know if any of these allegations are true.  The public deserves to get a better understanding of how ethics enforcement works – or doesn’t work – in New York.

Of course, the structure of the agency is the root problem: Commissioners appointed directly by the governor and the Legislative leaders – the very people whose ethical behavior could be questioned.

That simply cannot work.

That’s what government watchdogs and a New York City Bar Association review concluded.  The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (and the Legislative Ethics Commission) should be replaced with an independent ethics enforcement agency that would monitor and enforce ethics for the executive and legislative branches. 

Nowhere is the public’s trust more susceptible to harm than when lawmakers act in ways that skirt not only the letter, but also the spirit, of ethics laws.  New York has seen its share of ethical lapses, yet little has been done.  Prison sentences, convictions, plea deals, scandals and other allegations of ethical misconduct have been on the front pages of the state’s newspapers far too often.  As a result, the ways in which the state regulates political ethics has been a front-burner issue. 

Unfortunately, little is clear when it comes to New York State’s ethics laws.  The laws are riddled with loopholes and poorly – if at all – enforced.  Changes are needed to comprehensively reform the state’s ethics laws.  Let’s hope that the Senate uses its powers to get important questions answered and begins to develop reforms that will both ensure independent, competent ethical oversight and bolster public confidence in state government.

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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