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Another ethics chapter closes

New York’s oversight of its ethics and lobbying laws was back in the news last week. The state’s oversight entity, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), closed its doors on Friday and will be replaced by a new agency: the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying (CELIG).

Among its final acts, JCOPE released a report on its secret decisions that allowed former Governor Andrew Cuomo to obtain ethics clearance for a $5.1 million book deal. Essentially the report found that the former governor’s staff muscled JCOPE to get approval in a manner that circumvented the normal approval process.

The approval for the Cuomo book released in 2020, "American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic," should never have been allowed. The book was written about the public work of the former governor during the first year of the pandemic. Essentially, he was able to cash in on his job as governor, to the tune of millions.

The New York governor is the highest paid in the nation. The job is supposed to be full-time, meaning no outside income. This is the standard for the executive branch of government – full-time, no moonlighting. Of course, there are times when top ranking officials are involved in outside income activities, but approval of those must be made by the ethics agency.

In this case, the former governor was able to obtain approval by the JCOPE staff, without full consideration by the entire Commission membership. Moreover, the legal work done to obtain that approval was done by the governor’s public staff, not some outside attorney. Thus, the governor’s staff working on the taxpayers’ dime were put to work to generate approval of a book deal that allowed the former governor to enrich himself to the tune of millions of dollars.

This is not the first time the former governor had pushed for JCOPE approval of a book deal. Ten years earlier, the governor’s staff also working at the public’s expense obtained JCOPE approval of a book deal worth roughly $700,000. It was that approval that provided the justification for the multi-million-dollar payday in 2020.

The book deal reeks in other ways, most notably that the former governor used his public staff to be involved in writing the book, a clear no-no, and as a result JCOPE has sued Cuomo to force him to return his ill-gotten gains.

Why did this happen? Well, JCOPE was never designed to be an independent agency. It was designed as a political creature, one which was susceptible to pressure from Albany’s political elite.

The agency’s demise is long overdue. Unfortunately, its replacement shares the same fundamental flaw – the Commissioners for the new agency also are chosen by the top-ranking elected officials in New York State. There are new safeguards to limit political influence, but whether those guardrails are adequate, only time will tell. The new agency was approved as part of April’s state budget deal and garnered no support from outside watchdog groups.

As a result, New York’s ethics and lobbying watchdog will conduct its duties based on an “honor system”: a system in which the governor and the state’s political leaders will behave honorably and leave the agency to act in the public’s interest. We’ll see how that works as new ethical controversies bubble up.

Regrettably, the problems besetting ethics enforcement are not isolated. The enforcer of the state’s election laws is appointed by the governor. That government official recently allowed the former governor to keep $18 million in campaign contributions for his use, even though the former governor is not running for office.

The state’s Inspector General is also appointed by the governor and reports to her office; the same IG office that failed to adequately investigate leaks of confidential enforcement discussions by JCOPE; the one that has received notoriety for how the former governor got wind of JCOPE’s discussions on how to punish a former Cuomo aide (now in prison for corruption) and complained to the Assembly Speaker about his JCOPE appointees. The IG did not interview the former governor to find out how he obtained that information and then stated that there was no evidence that there was a leak – even though it was publicly reported!

New York’s system of campaign financing, the awarding of government contracts, lobbying and ethics all are marred by deeply flawed oversight systems. Real changes must occur. Here are some steps that should be taken to boost the quality of democracy in New York:

  1. New laws must be enacted to ensure that CELIG, the IG, and the election law counsel are independent of the individuals and entities that they must monitor.  A corps of civil service professionals should be responsible for ethics and democracy, not elected officials and political parties.
  2. New restrictions on campaign donations from those seeking government contracts or lobbying.
  3. New campaign contribution limits that do not exceed those for President of the U.S.  A system that relies on a large number of small donors is less of a corruption risk than one that relies on a small number of very large contributors – like New York has now.

Until steps like these are taken, New Yorkers will continue to have their confidence shaken by the actions of elected officials and an erosion of their confidence in democracy.
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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