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Former Enron prober was a finalist to head state ethics board

ALBANY — A lawyer whose national and state investigative experience included roles in probes of the Enron and WorldCom securities scandals was one of the finalists to become executive director of the state’s ethics board before it chose a former counsel to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, according to a source and the former job candidate.

After a nine-month national search, JCOPE on Wednesday chose Seth Agata, a former counsel to and current employee of Cuomo. Agata is the third executive director of the board, which regulates ethics and lobbying in Albany, who had worked for Cuomo.

JCOPE has refused to make public how it arrived at the latest choice and what the board’s vote was. On Thursday it refused to say how much Agata will be paid or when he starts the job.

A national search for a new director had been undertaken after some JCOPE board members said they were concerned about the board’s independence from Cuomo.

The runner-up was Thomas Krebs, an Alabama lawyer with experience in national and state securities investigations, a source confirmed.

“It would have been my view to focus more on enforcement than anything else,” said Krebs, 72, in an interview. Krebs said the other elements of the job as described to him by JCOPE officials included educating state officials on ethics and eliminating “duplicate filings” with the legislature’s ethics board and the New York City lobbying commission.

“Enforcement would have been the principle thing I would have brought to the table,” he said.

But Krebs didn’t criticize the process.

“If you are asking if the process was fair, I guess so, but I don’t have any way to judge,” he said. “I thought they questions they asked were appropriate.”

Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the lack of detail on JCOPE’s decision-making process “underscores that JCOPE has a responsibility to tell the public how it worked out. What was the search like? Why is it magically three times in a row they end up with someone from the governor’s staff?”

“It’s not the person, they may have picked the best candidate, but it’s the process,” Horner said.

JCOPE spokesman Walter McClure wouldn’t comment. A Cuomo spokesman also wouldn’t comment.

Horner also said, “It’s absolutely indefensible for a state agency not to let the public know how much it’s paying its staff. It’s the taxpayers’ money, not the agency’s.”

Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union good-government group, who supported Agata’s choice, “Given the need for our public ethics enforcement agency to be as transparent as possible, providing this information seems like a no-brainer to me.”

But Dadey wouldn’t second-guess the choice of Agata, because he said he doesn’t have all the information JCOPE did in arriving at a choice.

Agata made $120,800 a year as chairman of the state Public Employment Relations Board, according to state comptroller’s office records.

JCOPE’s most recent executive director, Letitzia Tagliofierro, was paid $148,569, according to comptroller’s office records. A former Cuomo appointee, she left JCOPE when Cuomo appointed her deputy commissioner of the Department of Taxation and Finance.

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