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JCOPE Under Review

The controversial New York State ethics commission is in the midst of a review by a panel appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature. Government reform groups say they’ve already been asked to give their opinions on how to fix some of the commission’s problems. 

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, was designed by Cuomo and state lawmakers four years ago.  It replaced a former ethics commission that also was troubled.  

JCOPE has been criticized for operating in almost total secrecy and for a weak voting structure that enables commissioners to stymie an ethics investigation that the politicians who appointed them may not like. 

The commission members have said they have to operate mostly in private, because they are conducting corruption related probes and targets are considered innocent until proven guilty. 

The review panel has already begun reaching out to reform groups. Blair Horner, Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said he had a preliminary meeting with the panel. 

“They’re just beginning that process,” Horner said. “We’ve urged them to continue working.” 

NYPIRG backs a number of changes, including making the ethics commission subject to Freedom of Information and Open Meeting Laws. 

The League of Women Voters’ Legislative Director Barbara Bartoletti also met with the reform panel. She said the first goal is to find ways to restore public trust in JCOPE in an atmosphere of public corruption by elected officials. 

“They need to feel these people are doing their jobs,” Bartoletti said. “And I don’t think they have felt that.” 

The two top legislative leaders have been arrested on federal corruption charges this year, and two other top lawmakers were convicted this summer of fraud and lying to FBI agents.  

Bartoletti said the structure of JCOPE, with 14 commissioners, is also unwieldy. 

The ethics commission has lost two executive directors in less than four years. Both had formerly worked for Cuomo. One returned to the administration, and the other is working in the private sector.    Commissioners appointed by legislative leaders have complained of excessive control by the governor.  

At a rare public airing of their differences, some commissioners at the August meeting of JCOPE said they don’t want another associate of Cuomo’s to be the next executive director. 

Commissioner Marvin Jacobs was appointed by former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver had to resign as speaker after his arrest in late January. 

“I hope the process will be reformed this time around,” said Jacob. “And we will truly do a search and find a person who is truly independent.”

Commissioner Mary Lou Rath, who was appointed by former Senate Leader Dean Skelos, who also had to resign his leadership post after corruption charges, agreed with Commissioner Jacobs. 

“We need a different approach,” Rath said at the meeting.  

The commissioners were also angered that before the previous executive director left her job, she hired two new employees, both Cuomo associates, to work at the commission. Jacobs say under JCOPE’s stature, commissioners are supposed to pick the staff.  

Bartoletti said the reform panel looking into JCOPE is made up of “irreproachable” appointees, including its chair, former Albany Law School Dean and now Dean of the Touro Law School, Patricia Salkin. It also includes a former Republican State Senator, Dale Volker from Western New York, and a former long-time aid to Governor Mario Cuomo, Elizabeth Moore, among others.  

Bartoletti said with Cuomo and the legislature reluctant to call a special session to address ethical issues, the panel could provide a needed impetus for change. 

“This review commission is our single best hope for turning things around,” she said. 

The review commission is due to issue a final report by Nov. 1. The governor and legislature would still have to approve any proposed changes to the ethics commission.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.