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New York's newly created state ethics panel is off to a slow start

state capitol building
CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons
The eastern side of the New York state Capitol in Albany, NY.

The troubled state Joint Commission on Public Ethics went out of businesses earlier this month, after Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state legislature agreed to replace it with a new ethics panel. But progress on creating the new commission has been slow, leaving the state without any ethics panel at all.

JCOPE held its last meeting July 7 on Zoom, with little fanfare.

JCOPE, sometimes referred to by critics as “JJOKE”, was created by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republicans and Democrats who at the time ran the New York State legislature. It was derided for being too close to Cuomo and for at times protecting the ex- governor’s allies. Its complicated voting rules meant that a simple majority of appointees could not approve an investigation into possible ethical violations. And, when probes were okayed, they often lingered indefinitely.

The new commission, the New York State Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government, was created in April by Hochul and Democrats, who now lead the legislature. Just like the old commission, it allows top elected officials to nominate appointees, although the governor now has just three slots to fill, instead to six. And now the nominees have to be vetted first by a rotating panel of 15 law school deans.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government reform organization, says the new commission is somewhat of an improvement over the old one.

“JCOPE did set a low bar for ethics and lobbying oversight,” Horner said. “This new entity should operate better.”

Horner says the voting rules are more straightforward, and the new commission will be more transparent about investigations it is conducting and have to adhere to the state’s open meetings laws, and Freedom of Information Laws.

Rachael Fauss, with Reinvent Albany, says it’s an opportunity to restore some credibility to the state’s ethics policing system.

“A best case scenario is a fresh start,” Fauss said. “New members, getting rid of some of the baggage of JCOPE.”

But both Fauss and Horner say it has a fundamental flaw, because the politicians still get to choose the commissioners, and the deck is not evenly stacked.

The governor still gets more slots than anyone else, and legislative majority party leaders get two appointees each, compared to just one each for minority party leaders.

Fauss says it remains to be seen whether the politicians who appointed the commissioners will allow them to act freely, when it comes to potential ethics violations.

“It’s going to be in part up to them to let their members act more independently,” Fauss said.

Although the commission was approved more than three months ago, the governor and legislative leaders have been slow to name appointees. Attorney General Tish James finally named her choice on July 25, and Hochul has named just two of her three nominees.

Horner says the delays are already sending the wrong message the public.

“There’s probably no good excuse for why it’s taking so long, and it’s bad,” Horner said. “By dragging out the appointment process it’s not building any confidence.”

Under the rules, the law school deans have 30 days to check over the commissioners. Fauss says the deans, to their credit, have added a few more steps to make the process even more transparent, including a seven day public comment period. She says the deans, who did not advocate to be part of the new process, also have their own reputations to protect.

“It’s in their interest to have it be more robust process,” Fauss said. “So that their decisions are as good as possible.”

Although it lacks actual commissioners, the commission’s staff is still carrying out the work of processing lobbyists’ reports and ethics filings of elected officials, and the old deadlines, and penalties continue to apply.

But until all of the commissioners are approved, the panel cannot investigate any allegations of a wide array of ethical violations, including any incidents of alleged sexual harassment.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.