The New York Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (CELG) was created by Gov. Kathy Hochul and legislative leaders this past April. The body will regulate lobbyists as well as ethics allegations against state level public officials. It replaces the widely-seen-as-dysfunctional Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE). 

“JCOPE obviously suffered from a lot of slings and arrows from the public and insiders alike over its eight or 10-year existence,” said Karl Sleight, a partner in the firm Lippes Mathias. “But I think a new start should prove helpful to this new commission.”

Between 2001 and 2007, Sleight was executive director of the New York State Ethics Commission, one of the many precursors to JCOPE.  

CELG will ultimately consist of 11 commissioners. The nominations break down like this: three from the governor; two from the Senate majority; one from the Senate minority; two from the Assembly majority; one from the Assembly minority; one from the attorney general and one from the state comptroller.

This is a departure from JCOPE, which was dominated by gubernatorial appointees.

“It’s very different,” said Sleight. “Governor Cuomo had a larger number of nominees of commissioners (and) was able to direct things in the opinion of some. We don’t have that here. Only three nominees (are made by) the governor.”

Another difference? A group of law school deans has been convened to vet the nominations. The group appears to take its job seriously: nominations from the attorney general, the Senate minority leader and one of the Assembly speaker’s nominees have been rejected.

According to Sleight, those rejections pose an interesting legal question. 

“You have a situation now with this dynamic where the law school deans have effectively vetoed three of these nominees. Whether that passes legal muster is a very interesting question,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, whose nominee, Gary Lavine, was rejected by the panel of deans, promised there would be some legal action brought against it.

So far, seven of CELG’s 11 nominees have withstood the vetting process.

Some other differences between CELG and JCOPE? The executive director has a four-year term. Also, the expectation is that a large number of the existing JCOPE staff will make the transition to the new commission. 

“You may recall, by virtue of one of the past commissions, the Commission on Public Integrity, had some difficulties and the statute that replaced that and created JCOPE really empowered the commissioners themselves and limited the power of staff,” Sleight said. “This (CELG) is kind of a return to the days of the State Ethics Commission (and) the Temporary State Commission on Lobbying where staff kind of ran things on a day-to-day basis in conjunction with the chair of the commission.”

Is CELG designed better than JCOPE?

“You have to see how the commissioners themselves behave. How they deal with matters. That’s really the true test of whether something is working or not,” Sleight responded.

As for what the commission has to do to regain the public’s respect, Sleight said the appointing authorities need to realize it’s beneficial for them to have an independent commission.  And, of course, the commission itself needs to be fair.

“(It needs) to be dispassionate and impartial and to handle things in such a way that doesn’t suggest that they’re political,” Sleight said. “These commissions almost invariably fail when they become politicized. That’s the death knell for these commissions.”