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Irony in Albany?: Critics Question Appointments to State Ethics Commission

| December 13, 2011 4:00 AM | Updated: December 13, 2011 12:02 PM video

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a sweeping ethics law into effect last August. The law's key ingredient was the creation of a new bi-partisan ethics commission, which has yet to be created. AP/Evan Agostini.

There’s a new sheriff in Albany. Fourteen of them, actually, but a few of these appointments have already raised some eyebrows.

Following the August dismantling of the regulatory body overseeing ethics in New York State government, a new first-of-its-kind ethics commission was announced. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which is the first ethics agency in New York State history to regulate both the executive and legislative branches, was supposed to be fully operational on or before Dec. 12. But the  appointed members weren’t even announced until the end of the day on Monday. And critics say there has been little transparency throughout the process of selecting the commission’s members. Furthermore, at least three of the appointees violate Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s own rules for who can be appointed, according to reports.

Cuomo never said “cleaning up Albany” would be easy, but could lawmakers have used a little more elbow grease?

One Commission to Rule Them Both

Since 2007, about a dozen lawmakers have been indicted on federal corruption charges, leading Cuomo, as well as many policy analysts, to conclude that former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s ethics reform measures had largely failed, reported the Wall Street Journal.

WATCH VIDEO:

Susan Arbetter talks to former New York State Temporary Commissioner on Lobbying David Grandeau about the ethics commission. Video courtesy of the Capitol Report.

Cuomo signed the Public Integrity Reform Act on Aug. 15, a law designed to completely overhaul the way ethics are regulated at the capital, reported the New York Law Journal.

First, the new law essentially disbanded the regulatory commission Spitzer created in 2007. Since then, the old ethics commission has continued operating with a skeleton crew, but without the power to investigate new allegations of corruption.

In the meantime, the Public Integrity Reform Act gave Cuomo and the legislature 120 days to appoint members of Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which would regulate both the executive and legislative branches. The new ethics commission’s goals are two-fold; to create a truly non-partisan ethics commission, and to foster greater transparency. On the 120th day, the ethics commission was finally announced.

The Appointees

The commission is composed of 14 members. The main rules in selecting the commissioners were that they could not have chaired a political party, been a registered lobbyist or have been legislators, statewide elected officials or a commissioner of an executive agency appointed by the governor within the past three years, reported the Times Union. Several of the appointees do not meet those requirements.

Six of the commissioners were appointed by Cuomo’s office, including District Attorney Janet DiFiore; Vincent Delorio, chair of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority; and Mitra Hormozi, who worked under Cuomo in the Attorney General’s office until just over a year ago, so she doesn’t quite meet the three-years out of office required under Cuomo’s rules, reported Gotham Gazette.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos got three appointments, which include former State Senator Mary Lou Rath, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s three appointments featured Ellen Yaroshefsky, professor at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law. But Rath just left the Senate in 2009, another violation of the three-year rule.

In an effort to prevent a partisan commission, the Senate and Assembly minority leaders each got one appointment, attorneys Ravi Batra and David Renzi, respectively. Batra, however, has close Democratic ties, and has been investigated for ethical conflicts in the past, reported the New York Times.

Click here for descriptions of all the appointees, as reported by the New York Daily News.

Little Transparency, Save for Partisanship

The full story of why the commission has taken so long to assemble isn’t very clear, partially because Cuomo’s office hasn’t been very transparent about the process, reported Gotham Gazette; ironic since one of the central components of the Public Integrity Reform Act is to increase transparency of disclosures between public servants and lobbyists. For example, beginning in June lobbying groups will be required to disclose their donors, and in 2013 all State lawmakers will be required to disclose all of their outside income.

But then again, this isn’t the first time political analysts have observed a disconnect between Cuomo’s repeated calls for transparency and his tendency to quickly push legislation through not-so-transparent channels.

Now that we know who’s on the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, here’s the lowdown on what the commission will do:

  • The commission will beef up its investigatory process for public servants alleged to have violated lobbying laws, although the Legislative Ethics Committee — an agency created by Spitzer — will continue to impose penalties. Prosecutors, however, will now create reports similar to those used by the State Comptroller. Prosecutors will also have the new option of forfeiting the pensions of any new government employees that are convicted on corruption charges.
  • The Legislature will no longer police itself when it comes to ethics, as it had done under Spitzer’s model.
  • The commission is also charged with providing ethics training for all full-time public servants — not exactly a small order, and another reason why things may be taking so long. The qualifications for who can sit on the commission severely limited the number of people qualified to both recognize and investigate corruption, let alone teach other to know it when they see it, reported the Wall Street Journal.

While the commission has certainly hit some roadblocks, good government groups have been hesitant to voice strong opinions, reported the Times Union. While it’s easy to see how someone qualified to sit on the commission might still have private sector ties that render them not entirely objective, reformers appear to be satisfied, in the meantime, by the part of the law requiring lawmakers to disclose outside income.

“There’s a lot of lawyers and a lot of people who come from in and around government,” Russel Haven, legislative counsel at the New York Public Interest Research Group, told the New York Daily News. “We would have preferred more genuine lay people, but certainly it’s a group with impressive credentials.”

And if the commission fails in its mission to reform Albany, it wouldn’t be out the realm of possibility to simply disband it in the name of trial and error. This is New York State’s  sixth ethics regulatory agency in the past five years, according to the New York Law Journal.

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