As part of the massive New York State budget finalized late last week, Governor Kathy Hochul and lawmakers reached an agreement to disband the state’s dysfunctional ethics committee, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), and replace it with a new entity.
Good government groups, including Common Cause New York and the League of Women Voters of New York, warned before the deal was finalized that the commission deal featured in the Albany press suffered from the same major flaw as JCOPE. : that its members would not. be independent of the politicians who would appoint them. The ethics reform ‘box’, they said in a joint statement, would not be ‘checked’, following years of corruption scandals in state government and the resignation of disgraced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Now the right government groups have come out with a letter that denounces the new Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (CELG) as ‘fatally flawed’, because elected officials will continue to directly select and appoint their own commissioners. to ethics. Details of the composition and selection process for the new commission, passed as part of the Education, Work and Family Support Bill, were finalized in closed-door negotiations, experts in ethics not having been able to see the wording of the bill as it was written in the $220 billion state. budget package.
In his first state of the state address in January, Hochul called for eliminating JCOPE, which was created in 2011 to ensure compliance with ethics and lobbying laws. Watchdog groups had called the body “toothless and unnecessary,” with its 14 members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. The commission was seen by good government organizations and others as dominated by allies of Cuomo, who during his second term as governor had never been probed by JCOPE, even though several of his close aides had been arrested for corruption.
In July 2020, JCOPE approved Cuomo’s $5.1 million book deal, a project that was found to have been produced through vast misuse of state resources, according to a report by the ‘New York State Assembly released November 2021. The Assembly’s investigation found that Cuomo used state resources for personal gain. Additionally, the FBI investigated the Cuomo administration’s concealment of nursing home data on more than 4,100 coronavirus deaths, a finding from the Assembly report that was later corroborated by an audit by the Comptroller of the state.
Last August, New York Attorney General Letitia James released her office’s findings that Cuomo sexually harassed at least 11 women. These findings were also included in the Assembly’s report, which concluded that there were grounds for impeachment of Cuomo. In December, JCOPE ordered the former governor to divest millions of dollars in profits from his book in a 12-1 decision that Cuomo challenged with a lawsuit.
The new CELG will form an 11-member body: three appointed by the Governor, two by the Senate Majority Leader, two by the Assembly Speaker, one by the Assembly Minority Leader, one by the Senate Minority Leader, one by the Attorney General, and one by the Comptroller. Applicants would then be confirmed or rejected by an “independent review panel” made up of law school deans. According to the text of the budget bill, the review committee meets as needed or requested by elected officials and votes to approve or deny commission nominees within 30 days. The committee will be composed of American Bar Association-accredited New York State law school deans, acting deans, or a designated associate dean, and the group is responsible for posting its review process on its website. Once approved, the CELG commissioners will appoint their panel chair by majority vote. Unlike JCOPE, CELG will be subject to state open assembly laws and the Freedom of Information Act in accordance with the wording agreed to in the budget.
“The commission continues the fatal flaw of JCOPE, which is direct appointments by elected officials,” said Rachael Fauss, senior research analyst at the nonprofit Reinvent Albany. “When the watchdogs talk about independence, it’s not a system where elected officials directly appoint the people who regulate them. Unfortunately, that’s what this commission is. More than half a dozen editorials across the state criticized the design of Hochul’s plan prior to its announcement.
After a year of high-profile scandals, New York lawmakers continued a history of secrecy as they drafted the plan for the new commission, the full text of which was not made public or to grassroots lawmakers except on April 8 as the state budget was under pressure because it had missed its April 1 deadline.
“The devil is always in the details and this proposal was about public accountability, but the public couldn’t even read it,” Fauss said. “Because ethics reform was still on the negotiating table alongside big, complicated issues like bail reform, that meant it was going to be in the ‘big ugly’ budget deal and lawmakers couldn’t. not vote on it as a standalone item. It appeared next to funding for education or programs in lawmakers’ districts.
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During their discussions with lawmakers on a better plan for the new commission over the past month, Fauss said, good government groups have referred to the model of independent legislative redistricting processes in states like California or cities like Austin, Texas where members of the public can apply. serve, without being appointed by politicians. Several legislative ethics commissions, for example in Alaska and Rhode Island, have lawmakers and members of the public serving together, Fauss told Sludge. The most recent proposal from reform groups in New York called for a seven-member selection committee appointed by the leaders of the legislature and the state’s three elected officials, with layers of transparency and prohibitions on who can serve and with members of the public able to apply to become ethics commissioners.
In the case of California, a 2008 ballot initiative created the Citizens Redistricting Commission, an independent agency made up of 14 citizens – five Democrats, five Republicans and four unaffiliated with either party, of ethnic and from varied geographic locations in the state – who become candidates for service through an application and selection process led by the state’s auditor. Under the Voters First Act, the law first passed in 2008, the Commission draws electoral boundaries for California’s Congress, Senate, Assembly, and Board of Equalization. Notwithstanding any legal challenges, the borough maps of the trades commission apply until the next ten-year redistricting.
A dozen Democratic state lawmakers, including Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, sent a letter April 5 to Hochul backing the New York Groups seven-member nominating committee’s plan and pushing back on CELG’s nominating procedures. “Asking law school deans to automatically approve appointments by elected officials is also not enough to build public confidence,” the letter said.
Among the civic and good government groups active in demanding a better process and structure for the JCOPE overhaul was the Sexual Harassment Task Force, a volunteer collective of nine former staffers of the legislature of New York State who reported sexual harassment while working for the state. Erica Vladimer, a lawyer, political analyst and co-founder of the group who in 2018 accused former state senator Jeff Klein of sexual misconduct, a charge Klein denies, told Sludge that her group was involved in promoting of a truly independent state ethics body. because JCOPE had failed to protect former state employees who had been subjected to harassment, assault, or retaliation by elected or appointed officials. “Four years later, I still don’t have the resolve to hold Jeff Klein accountable,” Vladimer said. At a hearing last year, Klein’s attorney argued that JCOPE lacked jurisdiction in the case. The letter from the watchdog groups says the budget law does not extend CELG’s authority to matters under New York State Human Rights Law, which defines sexual harassment in the workplace. work. “This type of ambiguity leaves victims incredibly vulnerable,” Vladimer said. “Leaders are meant to be held accountable for abuses of power, and that includes harming their staff.”
After JCOPE’s oft-criticized record in handling sexual harassment cases, Vladimer said she was deeply concerned that the new ethics commission also failed to ensure the independence of its members: It’s not only going to keep staff vulnerable, it’s not only going to send a very clear dangerous message to staff members that they don’t matter, but we could be stuck with this for years to come.