NEW YORK NOW – After a snafu in early August, members of the state Legislature held a long-awaited hearing on how New York could strengthen its laws on public ethics, and change the entities charged with enforcing them.
Much of the focus of the hearing was the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, the state’s current ethics agency.
JCOPE was created in 2011, during the first year of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tenure. The group has 14 members, six of which are appointed by the governor’s administration, with the rest being chosen by members of the state Legislature.
That fundamental structure has been a source of criticism and has led to calls for what lawmakers and advocates call a “truly independent” ethics body, devoid of political influence.
JCOPE Executive Director Sanford Berland told members of the Legislature that much of the criticism the commission receives is because of confusion over what they are able to publicly do and say.
“I would ask that our enforcement powers, and our budget for enforcement, both be augmented. We have very little fiscal capability in employing enforcement counsel and investigators,” Berland said.
When asked about the commission’s investigation into Cuomo’s book deal, and the possibility of state resources being used to write that memoir, Berland said the perceived lack of transparency is due to restrictive state laws, not JCOPE’s self-imposed rules.
“We are able to confirm that the matter is pending. Frankly the statute doesn’t permit me, or any of our commissioners, or any of our staff, to say any more than that,” Berland said.
“This was a legislative judgement, this is not a matter of our rules, or regulations, or policy. This is not JCOPE generated, this is statutory.”
One of the major points of focus during the hearing was the resignation of Julie Garcia, a former JCOPE commissioner.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie appointed her to the body in 2018. She left the body in 2019 after, she says, confidential information on her voting record was leaked to Cuomo’s office, first reported by the Times Union.
That vote happened in January 2019, and was about a potential investigation into former Cuomo aide Joe Percoco’s potential misuse of state resources. Garcia said that she received a call from Heastie’s office, who said Heastie was called about her vote by Cuomo.
“The person who leaked information is still sitting inside executive session, and voting on very important matters. One of the matters I believe that they voted on at the end of June, was whether or not to refer the leak for a criminal investigation,” Garcia said.
“Either the Inspector General’s Office is incompetent, or corrupt.”
Garcia said she was never contacted by the Inspector General’s Office for her phone records. The IG investigated the allegations of a leak, and later determined that the claims couldn’t be substantiated.
While Berland took over as Executive Director of JCOPE this April, Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who chairs the Senate Ethics Committee, asked if he was concerned about the alleged leak, which happened before he led the commission.
“I have no objection to finding out, but it’s not impacting my day-to-day work, or currently the work of the agency,” Berland said.
After the hearing, Biaggi said one of her biggest takeaways was Berland’s response to that question, when she asked for a ‘yes or no’ answer.
“I don’t feel like he answered the questions in a way that made sense, and I don’t say that with disrespect,” Biaggi said.
“I think it just shows not only that JCOPE is frankly incapable of doing its job, but because of how it was created, the statutory authority that created it, renders it, frankly, useless.“
Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Manhattan, has proposed an amendment to the state’s constitution that would create a new commission to oversee government ethics. Biaggi said she supports that amendment, but that in the meantime, JCOPE needs to be strengthened.
For the state’s constitution to be amended, the measure would have to pass two consecutive state Legislatures, with elections between the two, then pass a referendum.
Talks of reform weren’t limited to JCOPE. Some good government groups also believe the Office of the Inspector General could benefit from changes, based on their investigation of the alleged Julie Garcia leak.
Blair Horner, the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, or NYPIRG, was among those who testified. NYPIRG didn’t have an official recommendation, but one of the structures discussed earlier in the hearing caught his attention.
“Right now the Inspector General is essentially appointed by the governor, reports to the secretary of the governor’s office, and therein lies the rub. So how do you sever the relationships between the appointing authority and the enforcer,” Horner said.
“One of the things that came up from one of the other states, which is interesting, was two-thirds votes from both houses to approve various members. And it’s hard to trade, even with a powerful governor, with two-thirds majority in both houses.”
JCOPE is scheduled to meet next on Thursday, Aug. 26 in Albany.