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Ethics commissioner quits as panel meets behind closed doors

The state ethics commission met Tuesday and spent most of its time in a private session, as a key appointee of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver resigned from the board.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, accepted the resignation of Patrick Bulgaro, an appointee of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver was the subject  of a recent ethics commission probe,  which examined his role in the sexual harassment charges against former Assemblyman Vito Lopez.  The report found Silver was not guilty of any wrong doing, but did criticize the Speaker’s role in a secret $100,000 settlement to two of  Lopez’s alleged victims.

Bulgaro is not giving any reason for his departure,  but he was one of the few commissioners in the ethics board two year history to speak out publicly at a meeting last September,  when he complained about leaks from the commission to the media on the Silver investigation.

David Grandeau is the former head of the State Lobbying Commission, where Bulgaro also served as Chair, and which was merged into the present ethics commission. Grandeau, who ran what was considered to be a successful ethics panel, now advises clients who appear before the state ethics commission.  He says he has not spoken to Bulgaro but believes he made the right decision.  

“He doesn’t need to hassle and decided time to pull the ripcord,” said Grandeau. “Good for him.”

Bulgaro has had a long career in state government, including budget director for former Governor Mario Cuomo. He is the third commissioner to resign from the ethics panel in less than year. Ravi Batra, appointed by the Senate Democrats, quit over what he said were attempts by Governor Cuomo to try to control the ethics panel. Commission Chair Janet DiFiore resigned to seek re election as Westchester County District Attorney. The executive director of JCOPE has also left.

Grandeau, who refers to JCOPE as JJOKE, says the secrecy surrounding many of the commission’s proceedings has been corrosive.

“Of course people are going to believe in conspiracies,” said Grandeau, who says JCOPE reflects the “back room” deal style of Albany politics.

“That’s unfortunately reflected in this defunct,  decrepit joke of an agency,” Grandeau said.

The ethics commission appeared to live up to some of the views of its critics. In its only public portion of its five hour meeting,  commissioners held a rambling discussion  in which they  seemed to back track on about new rules regarding donor disclosure by not for profits known as 501 c 4’s that were about to be implemented.  The 501 c4’s have been used by political campaigns to avoid existing donor disclosure laws. The commission decided to require the not for profits to make public their donors, with some exceptions for groups like NARAL Pro Choice New York and others, who argued that making the names public could endanger their donors.

The commission had held a hearing, and discussed the new regulations at several meetings. They were about to become final on August 14.  Then, David Renzi, an appointee of Assembly GOP Leader Brian Kolb, voiced some objections.

“I think we’re making mistake in the way we’re proceeding,” Renzi said.

The commissioners then discussed whether to amend the regulations. At one point, Gary Lavine, appointed by Governor Cuomo, suggested that the not for profits who seek exemptions should be required to disclose their list of donors to the ethics commission, who would then keep the names secret.  The board ultimately decided to table the discussion for the next meeting in September.

They also announced that a meeting scheduled for late August will be cancelled.  

The move created some confusion among some not for profits have already sought and received waivers for exemptions to the donor disclosure rules. A spokeswoman for NARAL Pro Choice New York, says the group has already applied for the waiver and received a letter from JCOPE confirming that it qualified for the exemption.  A spokesman for JCope later clarified that groups that have already been approved will get to keep their exemptions.

After the vote, the commission entered a four hour executive session, conducted behind closed doors. There was no official word on what they discussed.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.