Hearings in summer of 2021 should focus on a constitutional amendment that replaces JCOPE with truly independent ethics enforcement
Watchdog groups today wrote to the legislative leaders asking them to pass five bills to fix known problems at JCOPE and better protect all state employees from retaliation and harassment. The groups asked for the bills (listed below in letter) to be passed this session, and for public hearings to be held over the summer to develop the best possible constitutional amendment that replaces JCOPE with an independent ethics enforcement agency.
The groups said the public has lost confidence in the ability of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and State Inspector General to address profound issues of conflicts of interest, sexual harassment, and misuse of state resources, including the allegations against the Governor.
The groups believe the ongoing investigations of the Governor by the Attorney General and State Assembly are extremely important, but the recent scandals highlight the need for legislative and policy solutions. The groups said that the investigations should not preclude the Legislature from passing bills to correct known problems at JCOPE, nor from holding public hearings or meetings on how to craft the best policy solutions to these scandals.
The full letter is below and here (PDF).
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins
Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie
Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay
Re: Need for immediate improvements to state ethics enforcement while consideration is given to constitutional reforms
Dear Legislative Leaders,
With the end of session nearing, our groups write to you to ask that you take both immediate and long-term steps to address the current public confidence crisis in the state’s handling of ethical misconduct and issues related to the abuse of power. The public has lost confidence in the ability of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and State Inspector General to address issues of conflicts of interest, sexual harassment, and misuse of state resources such as those raised in the allegations against the Governor. We fundamentally believe that JCOPE needs a total overhaul: one that will require a constitutional amendment. In the meantime, other incremental actions must be taken. Therefore, we ask you, the leaders of the Legislature, to take immediate legislative action, while consideration is given to efforts to change the constitution to create a truly independent ethics enforcement agency.
Specifically, we ask that the Legislature do the following:
- Include a broad range of stakeholders in hearings held this summer to inform the constitutional amendment to replace JCOPE introduced by Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Robert Carroll.
- We also urge that as part of any hearings, the Legislature should examine how to ensure that the state Inspector General is accountable to the public, not reporting directly to the Executive.
- Pass bills this session that incrementally fix broken processes at JCOPE and better protect state employees from harassment and retaliation while a bigger solution is crafted. Our groups support the following bills, while recognizing that much more must be done to improve ethics oversight and create a more independent enforcement entity:
- S5254 (Biaggi)/A6611 (Hyndman) – simplifies JCOPE voting rules for investigations and issuing substantial basis reports.
- S6364 (Gounardes)/A7512 (Hyndman) – allows JCOPE to disclose the status of investigations to the public and complainants under certain circumstances. This is a variant of JCOPE’s own legislative proposal to allow public disclosure of the status of complaints.
- S6261 (Biaggi) – simplifies JCOPE voting rules for appointment and removal of the executive director.
- A5825 (Cruz)/S1096 (Liu) – includes legislative and judicial employees under state civil service law whistleblower and anti-retaliation protections.
- A2483B (Niou)/S3395A (Gounardes) – ensures that employees of elected and appointed officials are better able to hold state government accountable and are protected under NYS Human Rights Law’s anti-discrimination and harassment provisions.
We understand that there are ongoing, wide-ranging investigations into allegations of misconduct by the Governor being conducted by both the Attorney General’s office and the Assembly for its impeachment inquiry. These investigations are extremely important, but are not focused on legislative or policy solutions. Therefore the investigations should not preclude the Legislature from passing bills to correct known problems at JCOPE, nor from holding public hearings or meetings on how to craft the best long-term policy solutions to these scandals.
Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.
Citizens Union of the City of New York
Common Cause New York
Laura Ladd Bierman
League of Women Voters of New York State
New York Public Interest Research Group
Sexual Harassment Working Group
Cc. Senator Alessandra Biaggi, Chair, Senate Ethics Committee
Senator Liz Krueger, Chair, Senate Finance Committee
Assemblymember Kenneth Zebrowski, Chair, Governmental Operations Committee
Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, Chair, Assembly Ethics Committee