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New ethics board chairman moves toward more openness

ALBANY -- The state's powerful ethics board with its record of secrecy moved yesterday under a new chairman toward greater transparency and took aim at a confidentiality loophole that protects special interests.

Good-government groups have said anonymous big money donors have used the loophole to hide behind to influence state government decisions and spending.

But several members of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics said yesterday the board made a mistake a year ago in creating that broad exemption. It allows lobbying groups to keep donors' names secret if they can argue that public disclosure would present a threat to donors.

"What we're really talking about is allowing tens of millions of dollars to be exempted from review," Commissioner George Weissman said. "We should have that debate publicly."

Commissioners agreed to have a public discussion on amending the exemption, possibly in early September.

"I think . . . [an amendment] would add transparency," said Weissman, an appointee of Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos. "I think we maybe made a mistake or two along the way, and it's a new organization. I think I'm big enough to say, 'I didn't see it early enough,' and I think maybe other people agree with me."

Yesterday's meeting was a marked departure from previous ones, which often included less than 10 minutes of public discussion followed by several hours of closed-door executive sessions. At least a couple of meetings were held without ever being announced.

JCOPE's first meeting two years ago was held secretly by phone, The Associated Press reported at the time.

Commission chairman Daniel Horwitz allowed the public discussion yesterday to continue for more than 30 minutes in one of the first meetings he's conducted.

"I certainly think that your discussion and the allusion for the need for transparency is one that we all share," said Howitz, an appointee of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. "It's very, very important."

The commission traditionally has chosen not to abide by the state Open Meetings Law or the state Freedom of Information law.

For example, it denied a Freedom of Information request by the AP to release the tally of a secret vote for hiring JCOPE's first $148,000-a-year executive director.

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