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Ethics Panel Meets for Final Time in 2013

The state ethics board held its final meeting of the year, and announced no major decisions or initiatives. Critics say that’s normal for the controversial Joint Commission on Public Ethics, and they say that’s part of the problem.

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The last ethics commission meeting of the year was similar to most of the other meetings held this year.  It lasted less than fifteen minutes, before the commissioners voted to enter a private, executive session. Most of the members attended via skype, instead of in person.  The only even slightly controversial matter arose when one of the commissioners, George Weissman, appointed by the Senate Republicans, questioned why the public is not informed of the agenda until just hours before the meetings.

“In light of the fact that we are about transparency,” Weissman said.

After a brief moment of silence, the other Joint Commission on Public Ethics commissioners agreed that the agenda could be made public on the JCOPE website as soon as they receive it. Then, around 12 minutes after it began, Commission Chair Dan Horwitz announced that it was time for the public portion of the meeting to end.

There was no official word on what happened in the two hour closed door executive session.

Critics of JCOPE, which include most government reform groups, as well as former staff of prior ethics commissions, say it’s not really the brief public sessions that they are concerned about.  Rather, they worry that the structure of JCOPE, created by Governor Cuomo and the legislature, is inherently flawed.  

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says too many compromises were made when the commission was formed in 2011.  He says a previous ethics panel created in 2007 was also problematic.

“They come up with something that is ‘pretend’ reform,” said Horner. “It hasn’t worked.”

The 14 member panel is designed so that any one faction can block a potential corruption investigation.

While party leaders in the legislature are allotted appointments, most of the commissioners are chosen by  Governor Cuomo.  The top staff that run the day to day operations and supervise investigations are former employees of Governor Cuomo, some when Cuomo was Attorney General. Horner says that can lead to the perception that the ethics panel is controlled by Governor Cuomo.

“As long as it’s viewed as beholden to the governor, which is effectively how people view it, it doesn’t have the same kind of broad public support,” Horner said.

The ethics commission did complete a probe of sexual harassment allegations against former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, and concluded he violated sections of the Public Officers Law. It also looked at Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his top staff’s role in the matter but stopped short of accusing the Speaker or his aides of any improprieties and even held back emails that could have potentially embarrassed the Speaker.

Since then, two of the three commissioners appointed by Speaker Silver have resigned.

Horner says JCOPE needs to be replaced with an independent agency that is not hemmed in by the competing needs of the Governor, the legislative leaders, and their commission appointees, and can “enforce the law without fear of favor”.

He says Cuomo and lawmakers should just admit that they made a mistake, and start over.

Even Governor Cuomo has admitted that the ethics commission could use some tweaking. He said earlier this year that it’s the best commission that he could achieve at the time.

“The board we came up with is the best attempt we could get at balance and independence and get it passed,” Cuomo said in May 2013.

Governor Cuomo is expected to push a reform package in the 2014 session. It’s possible that corrections to JCOPE could be included.