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NY ethics commissioners complain about secrecy of powerful board

Chairman Daniel J. Horwitz confers with Executive Director

Chairman Daniel J. Horwitz confers with Executive Director Letizia Tagliafierro, left, during a JCOPE state ethics commission meeting on Feb. 18, 2014, in Albany, NY. (Credit: Albany Times Union / John Carl D'Annibale)

ALBANY -- Discord within New York's powerful ethics board, which has long been criticized for its secrecy, spilled into a public session Tuesday in which some commissioners complained about recent secret meetings that they felt violated state law and the board's pledge of transparency.

One member of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Marvin Jacob, argued that conducting private meetings and telephone conversations between staff and commissioners "is in fact contrary to public meeting requirements."

Other commissioners complained proposals have been discussed and even revised in private telephone calls between staff and some commissioners before they appeared at public meetings.


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"Why should the public care about transparency? Because bad things happen to good people in dark places," said David Grandeau, an attorney with lobbyist clients who had been the state's top lobbying regulator.

The legal point is a bit murky. The state Open Meetings Law requires most meetings of a public board meets to discuss official business to be open to the public. There are, however, some exceptions.

The commission created by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the legislature also was given the power to exempt itself from most provisions of the meetings law and the state Freedom of Information Law. Still, the panel has pledged to be more transparent to inspire public trust.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group blamed the legislature and Cuomo for the "design flaw" allowing what NYPIRG says is too much secrecy.

"This is the state's watchdog and it should be viewed by the public as an entity that operates without fear or favor," Horner said. "The best way to do that is to operate in the open as much as possible."

At issue Tuesday were ongoing cases involving Family Planning Advocates and the Women's Equality Coalition, which support abortion rights; the New York Civil Liberties Union; and New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, which opposes abortion. Last month, the commission rejected each group's request to sheild their donors from public disclosure to protect them from threats.

But Tuesday some commissioners argued that they couldn't give a rationale for their vote because none of the debate had been public, which they said gives the groups inadequate information on which to base an appeal.

"There was no discussion," said Commissioner Renee Roth. "I think it's an embarrassment to us." Roth, like Jacobs, is an appointee of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).

Critics say keeping donors secret would allow money to flow unchecked from anonymous sources for campaign contributions.

"What I don't want is lobbyists being able to hide their money and that's that this is about," Commissioner David Renzi, an appointee of Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua).

"I'm stumped and somewhat mystified," said the Rev. Jason McGuire of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. "The bulk of the work is done behind closed doors and they're asking us to reveal everything."

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