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New ethics agency is off to a sputtering start

It’s easy to tell when elected officials focus on a policy priority. They mobilize public attention, frame the problem in terms that the public can understand – and in ways that point to the solution they want – and then marshal the resources necessary for a successful implementation.

Ethics reform has never been such a priority.

Long on rhetoric, but short on commitment, for decades top elected officials have too often mouthed the words for ethics reforms, but these performative efforts always come up short.

Earlier this year, Governor Hochul pledged to “blow up” New York’s much maligned ethics agency, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE). JCOPE had long been viewed as an ineffective watchdog, and it had been structured to be an agency that was controlled by the political leaders of the state, not an independent ethics enforcer.

The best evidence of that control was JCOPE’s legal blessing for former Governor Cuomo’s two book deals, worth nearly $6 million. The second of those deals was reported to have used state resources – an ethics no-no – and the agency (after the former governor had resigned) attempted to reverse the second Cuomo book deal worth over $5 million.

JCOPE was indeed replaced by a new ethics agency, the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (CELIG). This new agency was structured similarly to its predecessor (like JCOPE, the new commission members are appointed by the state’s political leadership), but with a twist: The state’s law school deans would vet candidates nominated by the state’s elected and legislative leaders.

The rationale for using law school deans to review candidates is that they are knowledgeable about the law and independent. But that second reason was always suspect. While the individuals may act independently, they all work for institutions that lobby state government and CELIG oversees lobbying.

The deal that created CELIG was hammered out behind the scenes in budget negotiations. There were no hearings, no final legislation (other than a section in one of the budget bills), and as it turned out, no public support. The deal was approved in secret in early April with the new agency scheduled to be in place this July.

Yet, the appointment process dragged on into that month. It wasn’t until last week that enough CELIG commissioners were in place for the new agency to have its first meeting.

One of the reasons for the slow process was the inclusion of the law school deans. While the nominations reached the commissioners very slowly, they were empowered under the new law to reject those nominations. And they rejected three, although with no public rationales as to why.

That power – to reject nominations made by elected officials – is a questionable one. Allowing unelected private individuals to reject nominations by elected officials is likely to be tested in the courts. Nevertheless, seven of the eleven commissioners were appointed, and last week the CELIG held its first meeting – five full months after the law establishing the agency was approved.

Another wrinkle in the law was that the staff of the old agency were to be rehired after the new agency was constituted, which was expected to be around the same time as the old agency – JCOPE – went out of business.

But that was in July and the new Commission didn’t meet until mid-September. Apparently the old JCOPE staff were kept in place in order to keep the lights on, but without leadership to do much else.

Last week, CELIG’s first order of business was to rehire the old JCOPE staff.

It’s become clearer every day that ethics reform is not reaching the bar met by a policy priority. The secret deal never had public support, is based on dubious legal assumptions, the state’s elected leaders dragged their feet in making appointments (and still haven’t completed them), and as a result, the new state ethics watchdog agency is off to a sputtering start.

A bumpy start doesn’t doom the agency. But it’s not a beginning that builds public confidence.

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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