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Inequities In Ethics Panel One More Reason To Scrap It, Say Advocates

The New York Capitol Building in Albany
Hans Pennink
The New York Capitol in Albany

Democrats are poised to lead the New York State Senate starting next month, but they will still lack power on the state’s ethics panel. But a law implemented several years ago will allow Republicans in the chamber to hold the majority of seats.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, was created during the first year of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s term in office. At the time the governor described it as an “independent monitor that will aggressively investigate corruption and help maintain integrity in state government.”

But JCOPE has had a troubled history, and the panel, which also oversees all of the lobbying activity in the state, has been criticized for secrecy and lack of action on several major scandals that have occurred in recent years. They include corruption that resulted in the convictions of two former majority party legislative leaders, Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, as well as several of Governor Cuomo’s former top aides and associates. The commission also found sexual harassment accusations against a top Cuomo economic development aide to be not credible, and never spoke to a woman who filed a complaint alleging that former Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeff Klein forcibly kissed her.

JCOPE was designed with some protections for the majority party in each house at the time, the Republicans in the Senate, and Democrats in the Assembly. The two majority parties were each awarded three seats on the commission. The minority parties in each house are permitted to name just one commissioner each. But, there is no provision to change that arrangement if either the Senate or the Assembly flips, and the other party gains control, as will occur in the Senate in January when Democrats take over. The Senate Democrats will still be allowed only one seat on the commission, while the GOP in the Senate will continue to have three.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, a reform organization, says the arrangement is another example why he believes JCOPE is too political for it to be an effective watchdog.  

“It underscores what the fatal flaw is in JCOPE,” said Horner. "It’s a political entity, run by political appointees, and it’s supposed to regulate those people.”

In addition to the eight seats held by the legislature, Governor Cuomo controls six seats on the commission, for a total of 14 commissioners. All of the commission’s executive directors have been former Cuomo aides or allies.

Horner recommends scrapping the entire panel, and putting in a new ethics commission that is not run by political appointees.

“We think they should junk JCOPE,” Horner said. “And replace it with something that’s truly independent.”

A spokesman for Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the incoming leader of the Senate, says the Democrats plan to revisit JCOPE’s structure when they take power in January. Senate Democratic spokesperson Mike Murphy, in a statement, did not specify what kind of changes the Democrats will advocate, but says they will try to fix “inequalities” in the JCOPE structure to “create more fairness.” 

Governor Cuomo, when pressed during a debate in the governor’s race this fall, said that he would back measures to make the commission more independent.

The lone post on the commission allotted for Senate Democrats is currently vacant. The minority party Republicans in the Assembly have also not yet filled their one seat, after a previous commissioner left.

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.