ALBANY – New optimism is growing over efforts by the state house to create an independent ethics enforcement commission that can expose embarrassing behind-the-scenes deals and public corruption.
With former Governor Andrew Cuomo no longer casting a shadow over state government, advocates of good government and lawmakers say his replacement, Governor Kathy Hochul, will have the opportunity to lead the state through the most progressive ethical reforms in decades.
What is highly unusual, said John Kaehny, director of Reinvent Albany, a group that has championed ethics reforms, is that Hochul has indicated that she is ready to relinquish the power to control appointments to an office. ethics agency reconstituted to set the stage for the new independent watchdog
“She is willing to sacrifice some of her own power for the public good,” Kaehny said.
The past year has been marked by one scandal after another, with Cuomo as the central figure. He resigned in August amid an impeachment inquiry sparked by a slew of sexual harassment allegations filed by women as well as questions about how the current ethics committee, the Joint Commission on Ethics (JCOPE), approved his request to move forward with a book extolling his leadership during the pandemic.
Cuomo earned $ 5.1 million for a project that was completed with the help of several collaborators in his administration. And although he is not running for public office, New York’s elastic campaign finance laws allow him to dip into his $ 18 million campaign account to pay for his legal fees.
One proposal Hochul is examining closely is a bill that would establish an integrity commission, modeled on the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, the bill would replace both the JCOPE and the current Legislative Ethics Commission, and have the power to admonish, demote and even remove officials implicated in acts reprehensible.
Hochul pledged to bring much greater state transparency to state agencies and the records they keep, including abandoning Cuomo’s approach of having the law’s demands reviewed. on freedom of information by the governor’s office.
Kaehny said that Hochul, in a meeting with reform supporters soon after taking office in late August, said she plans to “blow up” JCOPE and hopes to quickly set up a body of reform. replacement rather than waiting a few years for constitutional changes to be approved.
If the legislature agrees with the plan to establish an independent ethics commission, it would be highly unlikely that a state executive would care to seek permission for the type of agreement. lucrative that Cuomo found for his book on what he billed as his “leadership lessons” during the pandemic, Kaehny said.
Cuomo’s memoir editor Crown halted further printing of the book after it was revealed that Cuomo’s inner circle had downgraded the number of coronavirus deaths in New Brunswick nursing homes. York to better reflect Cuomo amid criticism from his Department of Health’s order that such facilities had accepted new patients with COVID-19.
It is also likely that there are discussions about limiting the external income of those in office statewide.
While proposals to limit the mandate of elected state officials have only surfaced in the past to be bottled up, they could gain momentum in 2022.
Assembly member Ron Kim, D-Queens, has said he wants to limit governors to two terms. Governors are elected for a four-year term, but there is no limit to the length of their term.
“There is such a clear concentration of power in the executive branch that we have to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand,” Kim said.
Assembly member Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said he supported efforts to replace JCOPE with a more independent approach to ethics enforcement.
“Since (JCOPE) was formed this has only been controversial at best,” Jones said, suggesting that the commission in recent years has served as a “fox guarding the henhouse”.
Cuomo and his associates have often defended the book deal, citing the approval of the project by JCOPE staff. JCOPE is now seeking to force Cuomo to pass his income for the book to the state. But the attorney general’s office warns that there are legal obstacles to the effort to “recover” the money it has already been paid.
A measure proposed by Senator Todd Kaminsky of D-Long Island would ban government officials from requiring their staff to work during state hours to help those officials earn money for non-government purposes.
Calling JCOPE a “disaster,” Assembly Member Chris Tague R-Schoharie said he hoped there would be a vigorous push to institute ethical reforms in 2022.
Tague said he was sponsoring legislation that would limit mandate holders statewide to two terms, while members of the Legislature would be limited to six two-year terms under his plan.