Editorial boards: NY must have an independent ethics commission


Ethics loses again in Albany: Hochul fumbled reform by pushing for the Bills stadium 
Daily News Editorial Board | April 12, 2022

“Trying to drain Albany’s fetid wetlands (they’re not called swamps anymore), Gov. Hochul was right in pushing to “replace the Joint Commission on Public Ethics with a new, truly independent agency.” Back in January, she correctly diagnosed the problem with JCOPE being the servant to politicians who appointed its members and proposed a panel selected by law school deans. No more would the watchdog be the pet of the watched. But while JCOPE’s replacement, the state Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (CELG?), adopted under cover of dark after midnight Friday, buried deep inside the state budget, is new, it is not independent and its membership is designed for partisanship, favoring the ruling Democrats…Hochul’s law school deans are reduced to a powerless stamp of approval on members hand-selected by the governor and other Albany players, the very people who are supposed to be policed by the agency. That the governor will have three appointees while the attorney general and comptroller get one each makes no sense, unless the governor needs triple the shielding from ethics enforcement. Even worse, the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader (both Democrats) get two picks each, but the GOP minority leaders only have one apiece. Is the majority twice as virtuous, or just twice as powerful?…This slop, written up in 51 pages labeled Part QQ in the education budget bill, magically appeared for public inspection a week after the budget was due, but was greased for speedy passage by Hochul issuing a message of necessity to dispense with the three-day notice. It stumbled over the finish line Saturday morning and Hochul signed. In 90 days, July 8, JCOPE’s replacement may be worse.

Don’t expect Hochul’s new ethics panel to be better than the old one
The Post Editorial Board | April 10, 2022 

Gov. Kathy Hochul vowed to ‘blow up’ the state’s dysfunctional ethics panel, but the ‘reforms’ announced in her budget deal with legislative leaders fall far short.  The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, JCOPE, was mocked as JJOKE for one central reason: The very people it was supposed to police — the governor and state lawmakers, in particular — got to pick its members. That lack of independence rendered it toothless from the moment it began 11 years ago… Hochul vowed to replace JCOPE with a real, hard-nosed, independent watchdog. But lawmakers insisted on retaining their role in picking commissioners — to make sure the panel never came after them… Nice try, gov, but as long as its members are chosen by the people they’re supposed to police, it’ll be hard to see the new Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government as truly ‘independent.’ The acronym CELG may end the JCOPE-JJOKE schtick, but the new ethics body is all too likely to deserve the same contempt.”

Our view: Remove proposal for ethics committee from New York state budget
The Citizen Editorial Board | April 7, 2022

“Since being established in 2011, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics has been a proven failure in its purported mission to investigate ethical misconduct, mainly because its members are all political appointees whose motivation to act — or to turn a blind eye — could never be fully trusted.Government watchdog groups recently raised the alarm that a new ethics commission being advanced as part of the state budget would amount to ethics reform in name only because the makeup of the group would be controlled by the governor and legislative majority leaders…We agree that JCOPE needs to be scrapped but shoving something through in a budget that fundamentally doesn’t seem much different in terms of true independence from the Legislature and governor’s office is clearly not the answer.  We urge rank-and-file lawmakers to reject this charade and insist leaders strip it from budget talks and prioritize standalone legislation to create a truly independent ethics board.

Legislature continues to resist genuine, independent oversight  
The Buffalo News Editorial Board |  April 4, 2022

“New York has long been identified as having one of the nation’s most corrupt state governments, as well as its most dysfunctional Legislature. Understanding that, it’s hardly surprising that lawmakers don’t want anyone with any clout poking around in their affairs. No one should expect them to bow to that kind of change except under pressure from voters.  Hochul signaled the need for change in her State of the State address in January. She suggested an independent board with rotating members drawn from the deans of five of the state’s 15 accredited law schools. That idea appears to have failed, based on the Legislature’s fierce determination to decide who gets to decide on its ethics. In that, it’s a different version of gerrymandered political districts, in which politicians choose their voters before voters ever get to choose their politicians.  More recently, a coalition of reform groups offered a compromise. Its plan would permit legislative leaders and statewide elected officials to each choose one member for a selection committee that, in turn, would choose five members for a new ethics commission. That, at least, would put the members beyond the grasping arm’s-length reach of elected officials… The proposal by the good governments groups is a worthy possibility. It, or something like it, needs to be approved before the Legislature adjourns in June.

Editorial: It’s not ethics reform. It’s a joke.  
Times Union Editorial Board | April 3, 2022

New York leaders and lawmakers have a once-in-a-decade, perhaps once-in-a-generation chance to finally create a credible ethics oversight body. And they’re blowing it.  Gov. Kathy Hochul promised serious ethics reform, but what’s emerging from negotiations with a shamelessly recalcitrant Legislature is a transparent attempt to pass off an illusion of change as the real thing. It’s a waste of even the staff time it would take to draft the legislation.  It’s simple: Get rid of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, and put in place an independent body to oversee lobbying and investigate alleged breaches of ethics in state government. Emphasis on ‘independent.’

The ethics cop-out: Hochul and the Legislature must not pass a lame JCOPE replacement
Daily News Editorial Board | March 31, 2022 

Now, as the budget cooks in secret, Hochul and lawmakers are rumored to be looking at a reinvented JCOPE that looks a lot like JCOPE, with elected officials making all picks and disproportionate power for members of the majority party. A clutch of civic groups has correctly objected not just to the backdoor haggling, but to the panel’s design, suggesting a double-blind structure where officials would select people who would do the picking of the new oversight panel. Of course that would be better, and of course the pols will never agree. Hochul did talk a good game on enhanced transparency and expanding the Freedom of Information Law. Timidity on ethics oversight would be inconsistent with those declarations.”

State needs independent ethics commission. This isn’t it.
Gazette Editorial Board | March 30, 2022

“They should only come back when they’re actually serious about addressing corruption and unethical conduct in state government.  The plan they’re reportedly mulling to replace the ineffective and subordinate state ethics board, JCOPE, demonstrates that they’re not there yet.  Having an independent and effective state ethics board is important to New Yorkers because it will help identify, discourage and punish unethical behavior that allows government officials to abuse their power at our expense. Without one, they get away with it…. One alternative plan would include legislative and state leaders appointing a seven-person selection committee, which then would appoint the five-member ethics commission members from a list of applicants chosen by ranked choice voting. Whatever works to make it independent.  If state officials are serious about fighting corruption, they’ll ditch their flawed plan and come back with one that might actually accomplish that goal.

So, where’s the reform?
Times Union Editorial Board | March 25, 2022

“After all the talk of overhauling the so-called watchdog known as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the idea appears to be going absolutely nowhere. What a disappointment. What a disgrace, too, from a government controlled by the party that talks such a good game on good government. Democrats who run the Assembly and Senate can’t blame this one on Republicans, whose obstruction of good-government reforms ended with their loss of the Senate majority in 2019. And Gov. Kathy Hochul can’t blame this entirely on her fellow Democrats in the Legislature. Her vow to “blow up JCOPE” appears to itself be a bust, with reports that the governor has failed to push for the plan she unveiled months ago, or for any alternative.  We were intrigued by that plan, which called for a five-member commission whose members would be selected by the deans of law schools around the state. It’s not perfect — what is? — but at least it put some credible distance between the commission and the state officials it might end up investigating.  And there’s the rub. Clearly, state leaders don’t want a commission whose members don’t include hand-picked partisans and loyalists…This isn’t about letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s about not repeating the mistakes of the past — like expecting a watchdog that isn’t truly independent of the people and branches of government it oversees to be anything but a lapdog. New York needs to replace JCOPE, but it needs to do it right.”

On health care and ethics, Albany has the opportunity to serve entire state
The Buffalo News Editorial Board |  March 21, 2022

“Much of JCOPE’s problems stem from structural rules that serve to protect public officials rather than the public. For example, its voting rules allow a minority of commissioners to block the agency from taking action in any given case. It also hides behind executive sessions that shut out the public and is exempt from Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws. Hochul has proposed a new oversight body that would make decisions by simple majority vote, ending the ability of a minority to squelch an investigation. And while some in the Legislature are pushing for strong ethics reform, good government groups are alarmed at proposals within the Senate and Assembly to continue JCOPE in its current form. In a letter to legislators, seven such groups, representing a range of viewpoints, observed that “A vote to continue funding JCOPE without reform is a vote for the state’s failed ethics status quo.”  We agree. New Yorkers should view any effort to keep this broken agency in place as purposely evasive.

NY State Legislature must pass ethics reform
The Newsday Editorial Board | March 8, 2022

“There has never been a better time to clean up Albany…Hochul and the legislature must prioritize holding public officials accountable. Here are some ways to start: Overhaul the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the broken body that is supposed to oversee compliance with ethics laws. Currently, members are appointed by elected officials, and as we have seen over and over again that makes them beholden to those they’re supposed to police. Hochul’s budget proposal suggests replacing JCOPE with a more independent organization overseen by a rotating board selected by law school deans or their designees. Past legislative proposals have floated other ideas to reform the commission, such as having members appointed by all three branches of government. A compromise is needed: This can’t fall by the wayside yet again… Hochul uses the rhetoric of ethics reform effectively — but talk will not be enough. Albany has shown it cannot monitor itself. Strong, independent mechanisms to ensure clean conduct are needed.