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Government watchdog groups push for ethics reform in NYS budget

The proposed new state ethics commission unveiled by New York good government groups.
WAMC screenshot

Government watchdog groups are making a push to include ethics reform in the New York state budget. Governor Kathy Hochul promised to overhaul the state’s troubled ethics oversight commission, but so far, the proposal has not been agreed to by the Legislature.

Hochul, who took over when former Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned amid multiple scandals, promised to “blow up” the troubled state ethics commission. Cuomo controlled the majority of appointments on the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, and critics say in return, the commission protected him from ethics violations.

Evan Davis, a reform advocate who was former Governor Mario Cuomo’s counsel, says the state has faced continuing ethical challenges that need to stop.

“New York has a serious problem,” Davis said. “We have recurring, high-level corruption, and we have an ethics enforcement agency that is so lax that people call it a joke.”

Davis says the reputation for corruption hurts New York’s ability to grow businesses and jobs and to foster public trust in government.

The government reform groups outlined an alternative plan for an ethics commission.

Laura Ladd Bierman of the New York State League of Women Voters says the plan would create a seven-member selection committee. The governor, leaders of the Legislature, the state comptroller and attorney general would each get one seat on that committee. That body would then choose a five-member ethics commission that would handle ethics complaints and potential violations of the law. She says having a two-step process helps to further insulate commission members from any possible influence by politicians.

She says unlike the current structure, where the governor chooses the executive director of the ethics panel, the new commission would choose its own leader.

“Just to flag, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the chair is selected by the governor,” Bierman said. “That would no longer happen under our model.”

Members of the public could apply to serve on the commission, but lobbyists, big-money donors to political campaigns and those holding contracts with the state would be banned.

The proposed commission would also be better equipped to handle accusations of sexual harassment. Erica Vladimer is with the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which is made up of former and current legislative staff who have experienced or reported sexual harassment. She says her group offered advice on how to create a commission that is more receptive to investigating harassment complaints.

“Public employees can no longer wait for elected and appointed officials to finally be held accountable for abuse of power,” Vladimer said. “We know how interconnected different types of corruption and abuse of power can be.”

Vladimer accused former state Senate Leader Jeff Klein of forcibly kissing her, a charge Klein denied. JCOPE began an investigation in 2018, and has never revealed any details about the probe or said whether it is continuing.

Hochul’s proposal, released in the Democrat’s state budget plan, would set up a rotating board of 15 law school deans to decide cases. The Legislature rejected that idea.

Davis says the groups presented their plan to lawmakers last week, and he says legislators were receptive. Democrats in the Senate discussed its merits in a closed-door party conference meeting. He says that’s encouraging.

“They asked questions, which is good,” Davis said. “They showed interest, which is good.”

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group and a WAMC commentator, says the new ethics commission should be included in the state budget, because it involves changes to and funding for a state agency. But he says groups will not accept any plan that is just a superficial reconfiguration of JCOPE.

“We don’t want the deck chairs on the Titanic being rearranged,” Horner said. “We want the real independent ethics commission that the public’s been promised.”

The budget is due on April 1st.

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.