Critics say New York state’s system of ethics oversight is broken.
There are a lot of critics and they span the political spectrum.
The Inspector General’s Office — which is supposed to ensure state officials and employees act with integrity, efficiency, and accountability — neglected for years to investigate issues close to Andrew Cuomo. Just last week, the Cuomo loyalist who held that position resigned.
And then there’s the Joint Commission on Public Ethics or JCOPE, which, when it was created, was supposed to restore the public’s trust in government. Critics claim it has managed to do just the opposite. JCOPE has jurisdiction over state agencies, SUNY, CUNY, the Legislature and state elected officials, yet it, too, failed to investigate Cuomo allies — until Cuomo left office.
When your state’s ethics police have morphed into a palace guard, what do you do?
According to Susan Lerner, executive director of New York Common Cause, the issue can be tackled as soon as the Legislature reconvenes in January.
“JCOPE was set up by statute. It can be ditched and a new entity created by statute as early as January of next year,” Lerner explained.
According to Lerner, there are two parts to any change in oversight. First, there needs to be an appointment process that insulates the new body from influence.
“Unlike the current situation where you have direct appointments and the people who are on the ethics watchdog know who they answer to and are responsive to the concerns of the appointing legislator or governor,” she explained. “We need to have an intermediate step.”
The second critical element of any reform, Lerner told Capital Tonight, is a culture change that comes from the top.
“That’s why it’s important to hear Gov. Hochul say she wants to take this on,” Lerner said. “It will be up to her…to make it clear to [her] appointees that they are expected to be independent and represent the people and not the governor. And that’s a cultural change.”
Regarding Hochul’s re-appointment of a Cuomo JCOPE appointment, Lerner said she’s not all that concerned.
“It said that she is under a lot of pressure with a lot of different issues happening, and I frankly feel that we should cut her a little slack with all of the things that are coming at her,” Lerner said.