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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Ever-shifting NY ethics scene enters new phase

The next phase in an endless reshuffle of the Titanic's deck chairs is due soon as a special state panel reviews the performance of the state's ethics commission.

Testimony culled from the usual band of reform advocates has included some logical suggestions as to how to improve the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC). They add up to a call for more independence and stronger enforcement of existing rules of proper conduct.

For one, veteran advocate Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Group last week urged this panel that's assessing the panel to ask tough questions of officials under oath. These questions would address Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's ties to the last two executive directors, the degree to which legislative appointees "veto" some probes and how vigilantly JCOPE staffers investigate the accuracy of disclosure forms filed with the commission.

Horner says the commission's structure is "built on sand" if the JCOPE staff's "political masters pull them back."

The review commission's report, due Nov. 1, may or may not offer a gripping read once published. But events of recent years suggest that over the long term, one incarnation of the state's main ethics offices only seems to lead to the next.

Three weeks after taking office in January 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer and key legislators agreed to establish the Public Integrity Commission, which JCOPE eventually replaced. "In one bold action, lawmakers have set New York on a path toward true integrity in government," the new Democratic governor declared. This commission combined other monitoring bodies that had been separate.

By mid-2009 the next governor, David A. Paterson, moved to dump all 12 commissioners -- who were accused of ignoring evidence that the panel's executive director improperly leaked information on a sensitive high-profile investigation to a Spitzer aide.

Fast-forward to 2011, Cuomo's first year in office, and the creation of JCOPE in a bill he said would establish "unprecedented transparency, strict disclosure requirements and a strong independent monitor with broad oversight" of state government.

They called this the "Clean Up Albany Act of 2011."

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) called it a "necessary and important agreement on ethics reform."

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) called it a "historic ethics reform agreement."

Both are still serving as lawmakers, though out of their leadership posts, as they fight federal corruption charges in court.

Only last year, Silver and Skelos sued and prodded Cuomo in budget talks into disbanding the so-called Moreland commission that he had created. During its short tenure, that one was called the "Commission to Investigate Public Corruption."

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara now holds center stage in the state's corruption drama, of course, with a string of high-powered prosecutions.

But most agree New York like other states still must have some way to regulate its lobbying rules and codes of conduct. On that front the New York City Bar Association, for one, expresses concern over "JCOPE's lack of both actual and perceived independence."

The good news may be that if you don't like New York's current structure for ethics enforcement, just wait a couple of years for the reorganization.


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