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Cuomo defends new state ethics commission

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. (March 27, 2012)

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. (March 27, 2012) Credit: AP

ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gave a spirited defense Wednesday of the new state ethics commission, which is investigating the sexual harassment allegations against Assemb. Vito Lopez and a secret, six-figure settlement.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, created under Cuomo's direction in 2011, has come under fire for leaks of confidential information and its lack of transparency. One commissioner recently resigned, saying he feared the commission could be used as a "political tool." Other commissioners have questioned the panel's independence.

The commission recently voted to launch an investigation into the allegations against Lopez, who until the scandal was the Brooklyn Democratic leader, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's approval of a $135,000 confidential payment to settle some of the claims.

Cuomo said the panel and the law that created it might need some "tweaks." But the Democrat said the commission was "much, much better than anything in the past" for policing state ethics.

"It's inarguable that we are better off with JCOPE than without JCOPE," Cuomo said at a news conference.The governor noted the new panel has the power to investigate the State Legislature -- previously, the two houses policed themselves.

Without the new commission, Cuomo said the Lopez matter "would be up to the Assembly to figure out."

"Then we would be saying, 'How could the Assembly deal with an issue that deals with the speaker of the Assembly and a powerful member of the Assembly?' " Cuomo said. He said the commission needs time to complete its probe. Meanwhile, a separate criminal probe is under way by Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan.

The issue of information leaks is tricky for the administration. Media outlets last week reported the commission initially voted to investigate Lopez but not Silver -- triggering criticism about the decision and calls to investigate the disclosure of such confidential information, which is prohibited.

Watchdogs have noted the state inspector general's office -- part of the Cuomo administration -- oversees the ethics panel, which is dominated by former Cuomo aides.

The governor sidestepped the question, saying "it's not a determination for me to make."

Meanwhile, a Queens politician has become the first Democrat to call for Silver to resign.

Sen. Tony Avella (D-Queens) said Silver's approval of the confidential settlement is "seen as the classic example of the dysfunction and backroom deals that has plagued Albany for decades."

"If ever that was a time for change, it is now!" Avella said in a news release.

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