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Hochul's plan to overhaul New York's ethics commission wins praise, and some questions

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul
Office of N.Y. Gov. Kathy Hochul
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul

New York Governor Kathy Hochul made good on her promise to overhaul the state’s troubled ethics commission when she proposed a new structure in her State of the State message this week. But the idea is getting mixed reviews.

Shortly after she took over from former Governor Andrew Cuomo when he resigned in disgrace last August, Hochul pledged to “blow up” the ethics board. She made good on that during her address on Wednesday.

“I will introduce legislation to replace that commission with a new ethics enforcement watch dog. One with real teeth,” Hochul said on January 5, “one that answers to New Yorkers, and not politicians.”

The governor and legislative leaders appoint members to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE. The commission often looked the other way when the former governor or his top aides became involved in public corruption scandals, including one that led a former Cuomo top aide to be sentenced to federal prison for bribery. More recently, the commission’s staff approved a controversial $5 million book deal for Cuomo. It rescinded its permission only after the governor resigned over a sexual harassment scandal.

Hochul’s plan would create an entirely new commission, drawing on deans from 15 top law schools in New York to select members. The deans could serve themselves or appoint someone to take their place. Five of the designated members would serve at any one time on a rotating basis. A simple majority would decide whether to investigate, or if there’s evidence, punish, an elected official. All of the new commission’s proceedings would be made available to the public through the Freedom of Information Law.

John Kaehny, with the reform group Reinvent Albany, calls it a smart and realistic plan that would not require a complicated constitutional amendment for its creation.

“We think it’s probably the best thing that anyone is going to come up with in the short term,” Kaehny said. “This would be such a vast improvement over the disaster that is JCOPE.”

Kaehny said the plan would reduce opportunities by a governor or legislative leader to directly influence the commission members, because they would no longer have the power to appoint them. And he said the law schools would also have an interest in preserving their own reputations by not getting mixed up in political conflicts of interest.

The New York Public Interest Research Group’s Blair Horner said it’s an interesting idea that fulfills the governor’s pledge to overhaul JCOPE. But he said it’s “untested,” and his group has some questions.

“For example, law schools are regulated by the state, they have lobbyists,” said Horner. “And the ethics agency, at least as it’s currently constructed, regulate the lobbying industry. So how is she going to deal with that?”

Horner said the details of how the commission would function will be important. The criticism of JCOPE was not only about how it dealt with the former governor. It also has also been accused of dragging its feet on investigations into sexual harassment allegations against state lawmakers.

Kaehny, with Reinvent Albany, said while many state Senators and Assembly members back revamping the ethics commission, Hochul is likely to receive pushback from others in the Legislature who may not want to authorize an entity that would be difficult to control.

“And they will fight it, because they don’t want someone looking over their shoulder,” said Kaehny. “So we expect there to be a heck of a fight.”

But Kaehny said the timing is right for advocates to push for the change, after Cuomo’s final months in office were marked by multiple scandals.

“If it’s not now, when is it going to be?” he said.

Hochul is likely to include the proposal in her state budget, where she has more leverage in getting her ideas enacted into law. Kaehny said it will be one of the governor’s first big tests as the busy legislative session unfolds.

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.