A coalition of watchdog groups is calling for Senate and Assembly hearings on the “failures of the state’s ethics laws” and to assess how New York can restore the confidence of the public in ethics enforcement, while reducing conflicts of interest.
In an April 21 letter to legislative leaders, the groups wrote “[We] have long been deeply concerned about the lack of neutrality built into the structures of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC). We believe that JCOPE has consistently failed to act independently and is little more than an extension of the state’s elected leaders.”
The groups also noted that, “Under state law, JCOPE is responsible for ethics enforcement. JCOPE’s clear lack of independence and lack of public credibility makes it impossible for the public to have confidence in JCOPE’s actions.”
The coalition that wrote the letter to all four conference leaders in the Legislature consists of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs; the Committee to Reform the State Constitution; Common Cause/New York; the League of Women Voters of the State of New York; Reinvent Albany; the Sexual Harassment Working Group; and the New York Public Interest Research Group.
The group’s letter states that “In the American form of democracy — one with checks and balances among the branches of government — the Legislature is entrusted with the responsibility to monitor the performance of the Executive Branch and to review policy proposals, in addition to approving legislation. In that capacity, you are charged with examining agency and policy failures.
“In our view, concerns over the [JCOPE’s] ten-year performance are ripe for legislative review.”
The letter was sent to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins; Assembly Speaker Carl Heatie; Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt; Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay,
The letter was also addressed to the Chair of the Senate Committee on Ethics and Oversight, Alessandra Biaggi, and Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, chair of the Assembly Committee on Governmental Operations.
JCOPE was established as part of the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011, and is supposed to “ensure transparency and compliance with New York State’s ethics and lobbying laws” and regulations by publicly disclosing financial statements and expense reports filed by lobbyists and their clients. JCOPE has jurisdiction over more than 250,000 officers and employees at state agencies.
“Almost since its creation in 2011, JCOPE has been a punching bag and punchline among state government observers,” the letter states. “Instead of being designed as an independent watchdog, it was set up as a political creature to protect the interests of the leaders who appoint the commissioners. JCOPE was not intended to be, and is not, an independent agency.
“Certainly, we believe that by and large JCOPE’s staff and commissioners have worked honorably to do the best they could. However, as an institution, JCOPE is a complete failure.”
JCOPE isn’t the only target of the good-government groups.
The Legislative Ethics Commission was created by the Public Employees Ethics Reform Act of 2007 which was signed into law on March 26, 2007.
That legislation expanded the former Legislative Ethics Committee and revised the provisions of the Public Officers Law under the Commission’s jurisdiction.
The Legislative Ethics Commission’s duties include administration and enforcement of the provisions of Public Officers Law pertaining to members and employees of the Legislature and candidates for state legislative office.
It is authorized to issue advisory opinions and adjudicate complaints on violations of these laws. The Commission also maintains financial disclosure statements of those who serve or seek to serve in the Legislature.
The letter stressed JCOPE’s perceived lack of independence and its ineffectiveness in being an oversight commission, saying it protects the interests of the leaders who appoint the commissioners.
“Under state law, JCOPE is responsible for ethics enforcement,” the group’s letter states. “JCOPE’s clear lack of independence and lack of public credibility makes it impossible for the public to have confidence in JCOPE’s actions.”
The letter continues: “JCOPE’s jurisdiction includes investigations into violations of Public Officers Law, yet to have any credibility, the public officers who are subject to such laws should of course not have complete control over the operation of the entity. However, that is exactly who effectively controls JCOPE.”
Representatives of the groups who signed the letter include Grant Davis Reeher of Campbell Public Affairs Institute, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and Syracuse University; Evan Davis of the Committee to Reform the State Constitution; Laura Bierman of the League of Women Voters of the State of New York; Blair Horner of New York Public Interest Research Group; John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany; Erica Valdimer of Sexual Harassment Working Group; Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York; and Rachel Bloom of Citizens Union.
In addition to Senate and Assembly hearings on JCOPE, the groups also want a new independent ethics oversight entity.
“New Yorkers deserve an independent ethics watchdog, one with the resources and legal support to take on even a governor without fear or favor,” their letter states.
In a Zoom conference last Wednesday, Evan Davis of the Committee to Reform the State Constitution, said “Lack of transparency is part of the problem. If everything is shrouded in secrecy it is more vulnerable to political influence.”