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NYS budget replaces ethics commission with new entity

The New York state capitol in Albany
Dave Lucas

The new state budget replaces New York’s troubled ethics commission with a new entity aimed at lowering the number of scandals in state government. But critics of the plan laid out by Governor Kathy Hochul say the measure doesn’t go far enough and could replicate some of the same problems the current commission created.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, will end in the new budget and be replaced with a new commission on ethics and lobbying in government.

JCOPE was dominated by appointees from the governor’s office and had complicated voting rules. Critics say former Governor Andrew Cuomo controlled the commission, and it shielded him and other politicians from scrutiny of potential ethics violations.

After Hochul took office when Cuomo resigned over multiple scandals, she promised to revamp JCOPE. The Democrat’s original proposal called for 15 of the state’s top law school deans to serve on a new ethics commission, on a rotating basis.

The final version in the budget is a mix of the two designs. Eleven commissioner members would still be appointed by the governor and legislative leaders along with appointees chosen by the comptroller and attorney general. The law school deans would still be involved, but their role would be limited to vetting the nominees.

Hochul says she’s satisfied with the compromise. She says the deans will have the power to reject appointees that they believe might present a potential conflict of interest.

“The law school deans can give their approval or denial, it is not a rubber stamp,” Hochul said. “It is a different way of doing it. And the process of getting her was collaborative.”

Government reform groups say the new commission is fatally flawed, though, because members will still be chosen by the politicians they may have to later investigate for ethics transgressions.

Rachael Fauss, with Reinvent Albany, says Hochul did not fulfill her pledge.

“From our perspective, the ethics box has not been checked,” Fauss said. “This is not the needed reform. This is not the independent commission that the governor promised in her executive budget.”

The specific details of how the new ethics commission would function are still being worked out. But Hochul and legislative leaders say any ongoing investigations by the current commission will be transferred to the new entity and not be allowed to lapse.

These ongoing investigations include a probe into a $5 million book deal for Cuomo.

After Cuomo resigned, JCOPE tried to claw back the money, because they say the former governor misled them when he said his staff would volunteer to help write the book, and that government employees instead used work time to help him produce and promote the book. The former governor denies the accusations, and has filed a lawsuit against the commission.

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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