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NY Ethics Panel Votes Against Issuing Subpoena In Scandal Involving Former Cuomo Aide

Larry Schwartz
Courtesy of MTA
Larry Schwartz

Some members of the New York state ethics commission pressed for a subpoena to look into a controversy surrounding Governor Andrew Cuomo’s hiring of former aide Larry Schwartz as a “volunteer” COVID-19 vaccine czar. The state Attorney General is investigating whether Schwartz inappropriately tried to trade political loyalty for vaccine deliveries to some county leaders. Cuomo’s appointees to the ethics commission voted the proposal down.  

Schwartz, a former chief of staff to Cuomo, headed up the state’s vaccination distribution as an unpaid volunteer. 

Some county leaders accused Schwartz of trying to trade loyalty to the Democratic governor, who is embroiled in several scandals, for access to vaccine doses. Cuomo and Schwartz deny that occurred, but the allegations are the subject of a probe by Attorney General Tish James, as well as an impeachment inquiry by the state Assembly. 

Gary Lavine, a commissioner on the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, known as JCOPE, has been pressing for authorization to issue a subpoena to find out more about Schwartz’s status, and whether there were any ethical conflicts. 

“The request is for an informational subpoena,” Lavine said.   

Because Schwartz was a volunteer, he was exempt from the state’s public officers’ law under a special executive order issued by Cuomo. Without that exemption, Schwartz would have been required to file financial disclosure forms and be banned from lobbying the state for two years. 

Schwartz, during his time volunteering as vaccine czar, continued to work for an airport concessions company that holds state contracts. He left the volunteer post in April, after the state legislature voted to make Schwartz subject to the public officers’ law. 

Lavine who was appointed to JCOPE by the Senate Minority Republican leader, says the subpoenas would seek information about whether Schwartz or other volunteers ever recused themselves from any decisions that could potentially pose a conflict of interest with their private sector employers.  

“Likely, one or more of the senior-level volunteers are not volunteers at all,” Lavine said. “They were paid…by their employers. Employers who may have substantial business with the state.”   

Commissioner Jim Yates, who was appointed by Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie also backs the proposal. He says JCOPE staff had asked for the information about the volunteers from the governor’s office but the request was rejected. He says there are many unanswered questions.  

“We’ve asked the question repeatedly,” said Yates. “This might be the fourth month in the row when I’ve asked the question. And that is ‘Suppose somebody is invested with the authority of a state officer or a public office to wield great power during this emergency situation and that person acts in conflict for instance awarding a contract to a family member or as a political favor, is there no way we can look at it?’”

Commissioner Daniel Horwitz, who was appointed by Cuomo, was among the commissioners who questioned whether JCOPE has the authority to issue the subpoena. 

“It will be a subpoena outside of the law,” Horwitz said.  

Commissioner Marvin Jacob, also appointed by the Assembly Speaker, argued that the proposed subpoena was not unusual, and that similar oversight organizations routinely issue them.  

“It’s not something alien and unheard of,” Jacob said. “It’s done everywhere, all the time.”  

In the end, the motion was voted down. Although seven commissioners voted in favor and six against, under JCOPE’s rules, eight votes are required for a motion to be approved.

JCOPE has been widely criticized for being ineffectual in policing ethics violations, in part because of its voting rules.  

A bill approved by the State Senate on Tuesday would change the rules and allow a simple majority vote by commissioners to go ahead with an investigation. The measure has not yet been voted on in the state Assembly.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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