Corruption scandals have repeatedly rocked the New York state Legislature and the executive branch over the last decade: A right-hand man to the governor, the former state Senate majority leader, and the former Assembly speaker are headed to prison or are already behind bars. In Albany, you get to use your campaign cash to buy pool covers, European excursions and Tony Robbins seminars. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who first campaigned on a platform of corruption-busting, has made no serious effort to reform the state capital’s pay-to-play culture.
But one bill moving through the state Senate could begin to make a dent. Supported by Democrats and Republicans alike – a rare sign of bipartisanship in these polarized times – the legislation would completely scrap Cuomo’s toothless ethics oversight body, known as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, and replace it with an entirely new, independent commission. If lawmakers succeed here, they can make actual reform possible.
The new anti-corruption commission would be different than JCOPE in a few key ways. Right now, two of the governor’s appointees on the 14-member commission can veto an investigation or a finding of a violation. Three of the legislative appointees can do the same.
Under the rules of the new commission, only a majority could issue a veto and this majority would not be appointed by the Legislature or the governor. Mirroring a judicial ethics commission that already exists in New York, five out of the nine commissioners would be jointly appointed by the chief judge of New York and the four presiding justices of the Appellate Divisions. Legislative leaders of each party would appoint a total of two commissioners while two commissioners would also be chosen collaboratively by the governor, the attorney general and the comptroller.
Just as important, the new commission could take up the enforcement of campaign finance, which currently falls to the patronage-ridden state Board of Elections, which rarely audits or cracks down on rule-breaking campaigns. New York would become more like California, where a nonpartisan integrity commission oversees lobbying, campaign finance and ethics.
JCOPE has not only failed to root out corruption. It has proved, repeatedly, that it cannot be independent of the executive branch and the Legislature. The current executive director, Seth Agata, is a former counsel to Cuomo. JCOPE had no role to play in the corruption convictions of Joe Percoco, Cuomo’s most powerful aide, or SUNY Polytechnic Institute founder Alain Kaloyeros, who oversaw state economic development projects in Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and other upstate cities.
JCOPE drew criticism when it cleared Sam Hoyt, the former regional president for Cuomo’s Empire State Development Corporation, of wrongdoing after he resigned his post following sexual harassment and assault charges from a former employee. (Hoyt said the affair was consensual, which JCOPE found the evidence supported.) JCOPE didn’t even care that Joe Lhota was serving as MTA chairman while earning millions in outside income, including a paid board member gig at Madison Square Guardian, which sits atop the MTA-controlled Long Island Rail Road terminal. (Lhota said he would recuse himself from MTA business involving MSG.)
JCOPE currently exists in the equivalent of a black box, not subject to FOIL requests and unwilling to disclose how frequently investigations are blocked or who is investigated.
The legislation to replace JCOPE is actually a state constitutional amendment. Advocates and the lead co-sponsors, state Sen. Liz Krueger and Assemblyman Robert Carroll, argue this will give it a special kind of permanence because the constitution is difficult to amend in New York. An amendment must pass in two legislative sessions following elections before it goes to a statewide referendum before the voters.
For JCOPE to be jettisoned, the Assembly and Senate must pass Krueger’s bill in this session and again in 2021. In 2022, a referendum would come before voters. Cuomo does not need to sign off on the amendment.
Twenty Democrats, in addition to Krueger, have already signed on as co-sponsors to the amendment, as well as five Republicans. A majority, 32 senators, are needed for passage.
At its core, the push to replace JCOPE represents the best opportunity reform-minded legislators will ever have to fundamentally alter Albany’s culture of corruption. Campaign finance reforms such as public matching funds and lower contribution limits would help, but they can only do so much without an adequate watchdog. For decades, both the governor and legislators have operated with relative impunity, the only fear coming from occasionally ambitious federal prosecutors.
But it shouldn’t be up to a U.S. attorney – high-flying Preet Bharara or anyone else – to be the sole watchdog, the only cop walking the beat. A new, independent ethics commission with real teeth to investigate the governor and the Legislature would change how business is done in one of the worst state capitals in America.
Politicians would understand, at last, that casual rule-breaking could invite scrutiny,like it does in the five boroughs. In New York City, an empowered Campaign Finance Board can dole out heavy fines on any campaign that doesn’t follow the city’s strict guidelines. In Albany, laws can be bent or broken with relative impunity. If that ever begins to change, voters will have a real ethics commission to thank.
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