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Watchdogs say Hochul and legislature are dropping the ball on creating an independent ethics panel

The New York state Capitol in Albany.
File Photo
The New York state Capitol in Albany.

Ethics watchdogs said they are dismayed with a plan developing between Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York state lawmakers that would replace the troubled state ethics commission with a new entity.

Hochul pledged to scrap the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, which was widely viewed as being controlled by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and protecting his interests. Cuomo resigned in August over multiple scandals.

But civic groups, including Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and NYPIRG, say a proposal to replace JCOPE isn’t much better than the current commission.

Reinvent Albany’s Rachael Fauss said under the plan, the governor and legislative leaders would retain the power to appoint representatives to the commission, along with the state’s attorney general and comptroller.

“What we’re hearing is that the Legislature and the governor have agreed to replace JCOPE, but unfortunately with something that has the same fatal flaw,” Fauss said.

She said the civic groups want an “independent ethics commission that was not directly appointed by the people that would be regulated by them.”

Reinvent Albany and the other groups want a two-tiered system that would help shield the commission from political influence. Under that plan, the governor and legislative leaders and other statewide elected officials would all choose an appointee, but those appointees would then select a five-member commission that would directly handle ethics complaints and oversee investigations.

Hochul proposed a different plan in her state budget proposal in January. She wanted to create a new commission run by the deans at 15 of New York’s leading law schools. The deans, or a representative they appoint, would serve on a rotating basis.

Fauss said the deans would still be included in the plan now being discussed with the Legislature, but their role would be reduced to vetting the chosen appointees.

“All they would be doing is essentially replacing the role of the State Police or the people who do the background checks for people who are appointed to state positions now,” Fauss said.

Fauss and members of the other watchdog groups said lawmakers are missing a historic opportunity to create a truly independent panel to police a state government that is prone to scandal.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network 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. Karen previously worked for WINS Radio, New York, and has written for numerous publications, including Adirondack Life and the Albany newsweekly Metroland.