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Review seeks changes in Albany's secretive ethics enforcement

ALBANY - A state panel on Monday recommended that the ethics boards in corruption-scarred Albany become more independent of the governor and legislators who appoint their members and abolish the unusual veto power by a minority of members to block investigations of officials, including those who appointed the commissioners.

“It creates both a perception issue and a potential problem,” states the report from the New York Ethics Review Commission. The panel calls for current law to change to allow for a simple majority vote to begin an investigation. The panel also says that if this issue isn’t changed, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which can enact the provision, should be required to divulge the number of times this “minority veto” has been used and how commissioners voted.

“It’s just another example of Albany developing a different set of rules than the rest of the world,” said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union. He said the report is “a good solid effort that really pushes the need for greater transparency in JCOPE’s operations and the vital need to change the voting structure.”

The New York Ethics Review Commission, created by law, called for several changes that, if enacted, could make the state’s two potentially powerful ethics boards far more transparent and independent of elected officials.

The New York Public Interest Research Group said the flaws in ethics reforms shown in the report underscore the need for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the legislature to enact better ethics laws. NYPIRG notes the report comes just as corruption trials are to begin against former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan).

“Gov. Cuomo should call a special session and force a debate over the state's weak ethic enforcement and loophole-riddled laws,” said NYPIRG’s Blair Horner. “Real reforms are needed.”

The recommendations now go to Cuomo and the legislature, which would have to enact the changes to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the state Legislative Ethics Commission. The ethics boards’ current powers and practices faulted in Monday’s report were also created by the governor and Legislature.

Each panel has been widely criticized by good-government groups as ineffective. The groups have said JCOPE, whose top official is appointed by Cuomo and includes much of his former employees as staff, isn’t independent of the governor. The good-government advocates have also long complained the Legislative Ethics Commission failed to root out corruption for years, leaving that responsibility to federal prosecutors, who have forced 30 officials from office in the last decade.

Specific recommendations in the report released Monday include:

-- Creating a “firewall” between ethics board members and the elected officials who appoint them.

-- Creating a smaller board at JCOPE, which has 14 members. Three are appointed by the Senate majority leader, three by the Assembly speaker, one each by the Senate minority and Assembly minority leaders, and six are appointed by the governor. The chairman is chosen by the governor and the executive director, who hires staff, is chosen by a majority of the commission.

-- Requiring roll call votes of decisions to investigate or not investigate cases. Currently, the legislature and governor have exempted most of the boards’ discussion and action from state open records and open meetings laws.

-- Separating enforcement staff from enforcers who handle requests by officials for ethical advice before taking action, so elected officials won’t have to fear being investigated for asking questions about their potential actions.        

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