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State

Good government groups urge Albany to hold new hearings on ethics reform

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Advocates for stronger public ethics laws in New York state government called on Democrats Wednesday to hold hearings on how those rules could be improved, and whether the current agency that investigates claims of misconduct should be replaced.

In a letter sent to members of the state Legislature, several good government groups asked lawmakers to consider if the state’s current ethics enforcement agencies are effective.

“New Yorkers deserve an independent ethics watchdog, one with the resources and legal support to take on even a governor without fear or favor,” the letter said.

Among the letter’s signatories were NYPIRG, Common Cause, the Committee to Reform the State Constitution, Citizens Union, League of Women Voters, Reinvent Albany, the Sexual Harassment Working Group and the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University.

The target of the letter was the state’s main ethics agency, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE. JCOPE is charged with enforcing the state’s public ethics laws and investigating when an elected official, government employee or lobbyist may have violated them.

It was formed a decade ago by Cuomo and lawmakers, but the agency has frequently been on the receiving end of criticism by good government groups and elected officials who’ve sought a strategy to clean up Albany.

In the letter sent Wednesday, those groups said lawmakers should hold a series of public hearings and call on current and former JCOPE officials to testify. That would help inform them on how to move forward with improving the state’s ethics laws, they wrote.

“We believe that JCOPE has consistently failed to act independently and is little more than an extension of the state’s elected leaders,” they wrote.

A top concern cited by the groups was the actual structure of JCOPE. Fourteen commissioners are appointed to the panel by the governor and the Legislature — both of which the panel is charged with overseeing.

Some Democrats have suggested either bolstering the state’s ethics laws or scrapping JCOPE altogether and starting over with a new commission that would have broader power, and a different structure.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) said this week that discussions on ethics reform have already started this year and there’s an appetite for something to happen before they’re scheduled to leave in June.

“You can be assured that we’ve already started to have those conversations, and we will continue to have those conversations,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, said during an interview with New York NOW that she’s working with her colleagues and attorneys in the Senate on a proposal to replace JCOPE with a new commission that would be appointed, primarily, by state court officials.

“We are probably introducing a new draft in both houses, and I’m cautiously optimistic that we might be able to get first passage in both houses,” Krueger said.

It’s not a new idea. Krueger’s pushed some version of that proposal for the last few years, but it hadn’t gained support among members of the Legislature.

But that could change this year, considering the multiple controversies surrounding Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He’s been accused in recent months of sexually harassing multiple women, withholding data on COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes, and more.

Most recently, Cuomo’s been accused of using state personnel to work on a book he published last year.

Cuomo has denied inappropriately touching anyone — both at work and outside the office — and has defended his administration’s handling of nursing homes. Any work done on the book by state employees was done voluntarily, he’s said.

JCOPE hasn’t said whether it’s investigating any allegations of misconduct related to Cuomo, but its activities are usually not made public unless there’s a punitive result.