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Longtime Cuomo aide hired to run ethics board

ALBANY — After a national search, the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which has long been criticized for being too close to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, on Tuesday chose Cuomo’s former assistant counsel as its executive director. But this time the hire received some strong support from good-government advocates.

After a nine-month search, Seth H. Agata was chosen to be the new executive director of JCOPE. Agata had served as Cuomo’s first assistant counsel and was the counsel who in 2012 sought and obtained JCOPE’s approval for Cuomo to write his memoir, which brought him a $700,000 advance.

Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union good-government group called the hire “a very good decision. . . . I have found Seth to be a person of admired integrity and a fair dealer in bringing common sense solutions to the table.”

“I always found him to be an honest, straightforward lawyer,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “He’s the type of person you’d like to see at JCOPE.”

But the process is a concern, Horner said.

“JCOPE has to explain that when they had three executive directors, all have come from the governor’s office,” Horner said. “The process is a black box and the public has a right to know how it arrived at, three times in a row, someone from the governor’s staff.”

Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi declined to comment.

“He brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and integrity to the position,” said commission chair Daniel J. Horwitz, a Cuomo appointee. He said more than 200 resumes were reviewed and ads were placed in legal publications and newspapers.

Some board members have openly complained that the staff was overloaded with former Cuomo aides. One original member, lawyer Ravi Batra, resigned after saying the board wasn’t independent of the governor. Cuomo has several appointments to the board which he created via ethics legislation approved by the legislature.

Agata, as Cuomo’s counsel, sought JCOPE approval in 2012 for Cuomo to write his memoir, “All Things Possible,” for which he collected a $700,000 advance, despite poor sales.

The letter from the governor’s office didn’t mention Cuomo’s advance or the parent company of the book’s publisher.

Harper Collins is a subsidiary of News Corp., which publishes the New York Post and has had business before the state.

“I am mystified by the letter,” Horner said. “It doesn’t explain key facts, which is a subsidiary of News Corp., and it doesn’t mention the amount. . . . That’s not the way the process should play out.”

“I don’t have any problem with that. He was acting as the governor’s lawyer,” Dadey said. He said Agata’s government experience will help him understand how Albany works and he will “stand out and apart as an independent enforcer.”

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