Ethics panel rift opens over transparency

Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) Assemb. Vito Lopez (D-Brooklyn) Photo Credit: Bryan Pace, 2001

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ALBANY -- The state ethics commission voted to launch an inquiry into sexual harassment claims against Assemb. Vito Lopez Monday, amid a rift among panel members over its independence and leaks about its investigations.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics would not specifically say if it was looking into allegations against Lopez (D-Brooklyn) and a $135,000 secret settlement approved by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- which became public last month -- citing confidentiality restrictions. Silver since has said he mishandled the matter.

But Commissioner Mary Lou Rath confirmed that the panel approved an investigation concerning "the (matter) that we're all here talking about," although she didn't detail the scope.

The vote came only after a sharp debate with several commissioners questioning the panel's independence.

"I think at this juncture nothing less than our own integrity is at stake," said Commissioner Ellen Yaroshefsky. She and Commissioner Marvin Jacob made an unsuccessful push to force the panel to break with past practice and keep the JCOPE meeting open to the public.

Media reports last week said the panel decided to investigate Lopez but not Silver -- which sparked outcries by Republicans and the governor. Cuomo said he'd open his own investigation if JCOPE didn't do a "thorough" inquiry. Jacob said that the media reports were inaccurate and that the governor's statement came off as bullying.

"The tune and tone of that [Cuomo] press release was coercive and threatening," Jacob said, adding that the Cuomo statement and the media leaks have "created a cloud over this commission." Jacob, who spent years as a regulator at the Securities and Exchange Commission, said "I've never seen anything like [this]."

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"Nobody at this table is attempting to block an investigation of anybody," Jacob said.

Even a commissioner who voted to go behind closed doors acknowledged that "independence" questions dogged the panel. "Many at this table are concerned about our ability to function in an independent way," said Daniel Horowitz.

He sided with JCOPE chairwoman and Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore, who said the panel "cannot be overly reactive" to criticism.

Days earlier, Ravi Batra resigned from the commission after the governor's statement. He said he feared the commission would become a "political tool."

Cuomo's office declined to comment on remarks by Jacob and Batra. The governor, in a radio interview before the meeting, said he wanted to "let the process run" but repeated that he would empanel his own investigation if JCOPE didn't conduct a thorough probe.

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"Look, if JCOPE is not doing a thorough investigation, then do Plan B," Cuomo said, referring to his plan.

Cuomo gets to appoint six of JCOPE's 14 members. The commission staff is dominated by former Cuomo aides.

After a motion to keep the meeting open died, commissioners compromised: they said they would disclose any votes they take behind closed doors. They huddled in a private session for about 90 minutes then cryptically announced they voted to launch an investigation.

In the last two weeks, a lawyer for one of the women involved in the harassment claims acknowledged that she received a subpoena from JCOPE and officials from the state Assembly, state attorney general office and state comptroller confirmed receiving inquiry notices from the panel.

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