New York Attorney General Letitia James is calling for changes to the referral process for investigations after her office determined she could not probe an alleged leak to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo from the state's troubled ethics and lobbying regulator.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, known as JCOPE, has come under scrutiny amid the resignation of Cuomo, the influence he wielded over the panel and its investigations, and as state lawmakers call for reforms.
Commissioners at the ethics panel earlier last month referred an investigation to James' office over an alleged leak to Cuomo in 2019 stemming from the panel's decision making process over probing a former aide to the then-governor, Joe Percoco, who was convicted in a wide-ranging bribery and bid-rigging scandal.
But James' office, in a letter dated Monday, determined the referral process was not followed properly by the ethics commission.
"Upon review and analysis of the applicable law, the OAG has determined that JCOPE did not properly authorize such referral and as such it did provide the necessary jurisdiction for the OAG to begin review of the subject matter," James wrote in the letter.
At the same time, the attorney general called for legislative reforms to how investigative referrals to her office are made.
"I firmly believe that the laws governing these referrals are wholly inadequate and that the Legislature needs to change them," she wrote in the letter. "It further supports the need for a significant change to the system for regulating ethics in New York. Setting aside the fact that it is over 2 1/2 years since the initial alleged incident, it is a travesty that the law does not permit approval of the referral without the consent of specific members of the Board. It truly is unacceptable as a matter of public policy."
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics was created a decade ago as a means of regulating lobbying activity in New York as well as overseeing ethics of public employees, including lawmakers. But in recent years it has come under fire for its investigations, which included the advocacy of a sexual assault survivor and declining to investigate the bribery allegations against Percoco.
State lawmakers and good-government advocates have called for the commission to be completely scrapped and a more independent body based on a panel that oversees the judiciary created to replace it.
Meanwhile, Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday announced her appointments to fill two vacancies on the panel: Attorney James Dering will become acting chairman of the commission; Judge C. Randall Hinrichs will serve as a commissioner. Derring's appointment to chair is something of a re-appointment: He was an appointee of Cuomo's, who resigned in September.
"As I said on day one of becoming Governor, I am committed to open, ethical governing that New Yorkers will trust," Hochul said. "These appointments are an important first step and reflect the urgency required for the ethics body to conduct its business. We are committed to instituting bold reforms of JCOPE, which is why my administration will work with legislators, good government groups and the public to reform ethics oversight and ensure that the work of this ethics body is beyond reproach."