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Legislature looking to give more teeth to inspector general post

View of the Assembly Chamber during a Legislative

View of the Assembly Chamber during a Legislative Session at the New York state Capitol, Monday, March 8, 2021, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink) Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — The State Legislature seeks to make inspector generals charged with rooting out corruption in the executive branch far more independent from the governors who appoint them after a former top aide to ex-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo claimed that the governor was off limits.

Proposed bills include measures that would require legislative leaders and the attorney general to approve the governor's choice of inspector general and to require the inspector general to report on investigations to the Legislature, not just the governor's office. The bills will be taken up in the legislative session beginning in January.

"The I.G. needs reform … in a way that is independent," said Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Ethics and Internal Governance in a hearing in August. "Clearly this is a very powerful role in our state and it hasn’t been doing its job and we have to do better."

Gov. Kathy Hochul also promises to strengthen oversight and ethics enforcement in several areas including "who appoints an inspector general."

"All those are questions are on the table as I’m really rethinking how we conduct ethics investigations and internal investigations in our state government," Hochul said in September. "And I believe there needs to be more independence than there has been historically."

Details of her proposals could come as soon as January during her State of the State and budget addresses.

Changing the role and power of the state inspector general would be a potentially momentous reform, legislators and good-government advocates said. It is the executive branch, which includes all state agencies and public authorities, that doles out billions of dollars in contracts and hires thousands of employees each year.

"It doesn’t take a genius to understand that it makes no sense to have an investigator who is appointed by the same official who is subject to investigation — and certainly not without the investigator having complete protection for independence and tenure," said Vincent Bonventre, a distinguished professor of law at Albany Law School in an interview. "Switching political parties, what would/did any Democrat think of Trump being investigated by his own allied or unprotected appointees?"

In September, Cuomo’s appointed inspector general, Letizia Tagliafierro, resigned. She had worked for Cuomo in high-level positions since 2015. In October, Hochul appointed Lucy Lang to the post. Lang is a former prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Lang, who never worked for Hochul, is paid $220,000 a year.

"The Inspector General's Office definitely needs more structural independence from the governor," said Jennifer Rodgers, lecturer in law at Columbia Law School and adjunct professor at New York University Law School. "Governor Hochul recently appointed someone with whom she had no preexisting relationship — Lucy Lang — which is significantly better than former Governor Cuomo's practice of appointing watchdogs who worked for him and were presumably loyal to him.

"But it would be better still to have structural measures in place to ensure independence rather than rely on the good faith of the governor to appoint someone independent," said Rodgers, who is on the advisory board of Columbia’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity.

The inspector general has no set term, but serves until the end of the term of the governor who appointed him or her. A governor may also replace the inspector general at any time. One proposal by legislators to is provide a six-year term for the inspector general, to insulate him or her from influence by the governor.

Testimony in the state attorney general’s investigation of sexual harassment allegations against Cuomo revealed an obstacle to the inspector general’s office probing the governor or his top aide, the secretary to the governor.

"The Inspector General investigates allegations against all employees, including those of the Executive Chamber, but not against the secretary and not against the governor," stated Linda Lacewell, who was then a top Cuomo aide.

Her argument has some basis in current law. Executive Law 51 states the inspector general may investigate all "allegations of corruption, fraud, criminal activity, conflicts of interest or abuse in any covered agency." But the law also states: "The state inspector general shall report to the secretary to the governor."

Lacewell said that means the inspector general can’t investigate the governor or the secretary to the governor. "That would be a conflict of interest," Lacewell testified.

"That’s alarming," said Biaggi in a December hearing on the same topic.

Biaggi said there has been a lack of transparency in the Inspector General’s Office under Cuomo. She noted that in November, Hochul ordered the release all some investigative findings back to 2020 that hadn’t been released publicly. Biaggi said "releasing reports should be a given."

Biaggi has introduced a bill to change the reporting structure of the inspector general.

On this, there is bipartisan support.

"The inspector general is a crazy system and needs to be overhauled," said Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore).

A bill introduced by Assemb. Michael Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) would require an inspector general to be appointed by a majority vote of the governor, the attorney general, state comptroller, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, and the Speaker and minority leader of the Assembly. The bill would require "that the state inspector general ensure that any and all activities remain independent from the governor and the executive department and remain free from influence from the governor or executive department."

It is similar to a bill introduced by Assemb. Daniel Stec (R-Queensbury), which calls for the inspector general to be appointed through agreement by the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader, as well as the clerks of the Senate and Assembly. His bill seeks to "ensure that the executive branch does not control its own oversight."

Biaggi introduced a bill this month that would bar anyone from being named inspector general who had worked in the executive branch in the previous five years. The bill also would require the inspector general to report to the State Legislature, as well as the governor and secretary to the governor. "Any particularly serious or flagrant violations" would have to be reported quickly to the appropriate legislative committee, according to the bill.

The Inspector General’s Office doesn’t have to work the way it does now and sometimes didn’t in the past, said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Horner cited Inspector General Joseph Fisch, a widely respected judge, prosecutor and corruption buster among police and criminal gangs before he was appointed inspector general by then-Gov. David Paterson. Several of Fisch’s investigations reached high into state government, including the governor’s office.

In 2020, Fisch released an investigative report that found the bidding process to install video slot machines at Aqueduct Racetrack was a "political free-for-all," involving improper favoritism and more than $100,000 in campaign contributions by bidders.

"Our state leaders abdicated their public duty, failed to impose ethical restraints and focused on political gain at a cost of millions to New Yorkers," Fisch stated. His report accused top officials including Govs. Eliot Spitzer and Paterson and top leaders of the Senate and Assembly of favoring one bidder under a flawed process. The bid was rescinded.

"No one was going to get their hooks into him," Horner said of Fisch. "He just stood up to the pressure."

But Horner said New York can’t just hope to get lucky: laws must change. "Government officials are public servants, they are not royalty or dictators," Horner told the August Senate hearing. "The public expects government officials to be held accountable."

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