February was not a kind month to the governor. Earlier, the state Attorney General issued a report that documented that the Administration had significantly undercounted COVID deaths in nursing homes. That revelation and the Administration’s admission that they had withheld data from the Legislature and the public roiled the Capitol and became Albany’s focus.
Last week, Health Commissioner Zucker was on the hotseat as he faced lawmakers who had been stewing over the Administration’s stonewalling on the nursing home data. Legislators’ sensitivities had recently turned raw with Assemblymember Kim’s allegation that the governor threatened the lawmaker’s political career if he didn’t publicly back the Administration’s defense of its nursing home actions. Instead, the Assemblymember from Queens launched his own effort to highlight the alleged bullying tactics of the governor’s office.
As the month rolled on, more stories emerged claiming that the Administration had crossed the line even for rough ‘n tumble New York politics. The month ended with two claims of harassment against the governor made by female former staffers of the Administration. This past Sunday, the governor’s office requested that state’s Attorney General choose an independent lawyer to review those claims.
Everyone – from lawmakers to the media – has called for an independent investigation. But those calls raised a serious question – why not rely on the state’s ethics watchdog – the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) – to launch the probe?
The reason is that no one believes that JCOPE is structured to be an independent referee. Established a decade ago, the Commission’s membership consists of individuals who are directly appointed by the governor and the legislative leaders – the people that JCOPE supposedly monitors. Throughout the decade, there have been allegations that Commissioners do, in fact, relay internal discussions back to their appointing authorities.
Most recently, one member of the Commission quit over a call – supposedly from the governor’s office – to the Assembly Speaker’s office to intervene over an internal investigation being considered by JCOPE, despite a legal requirement that such internal conversations must remain secret.
But the lack of independent watchdogs in New York is not just about ethics. When it comes to elections, the two major political parties call the shots. That arrangement was to ensure that each of the parties monitors the other, but what happens when the parties collude? Recently, in the race for the NY 22 Congressional seat, it emerged that the two parties grossly mishandled the vote. The two parties watching each other does not guarantee that the individuals the parties chose to run elections are competent.
In the nursing home case, the Administration felt no pressure to comply with state open records laws to release data requested by members of the public. The Administration has a bad reputation when it comes to making public information available, yet the state’s Freedom of Information watchdog has no authority to force agencies to release data instead of foot dragging.
The state’s budget is also hard to monitor. While the state has a separately-elected Comptroller to oversee the its books, he can only do his job to the extent that the Administration cooperates. A decade ago, the Cuomo Administration successfully limited the Comptroller’s review over government contracts – a change which may have contributed to the “Buffalo Billion” scandal that resulted in two top aides being convicted of corruption.
See a troubling pattern here?
Independent agencies are needed to monitor ethics, budgets, openness, and elections. For example, New York City – and many other states – have a separate Independent Budget Office to keep an eye on city budgets, the state could use the same. Leaving that power centralized not only can blind the public but leave public officials without an easy path to exoneration if they are indeed innocent.
However the latest Albany controversies play out, there is one issue on which all policymakers should agree: The state needs independent watchdogs that are free from partisan or political pressure, have adequate resources to do their jobs, and have a professional workforce based on excellence, not political connections.
Unless and until that occurs, New York will have to deal with a state government too often distracted by controversies, a distraction that keeps them from focusing on their jobs – to better the lives of the public. The time to reform New York’s sleeping watchdogs is now.
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.