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Itís not an ideal bill. But it will change the way the game is played in Albany.

New state ethics reform may make investigation harder, say critics

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The New York State Senate is expected to vote on an ethics package when it returns from a break on Monday.

Some government reform advocates say the structure of a new ethics commission, agreed on by Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders , may make it harder to actually investigate public corruption.

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Reported by

Karen DeWitt
NYS Capitol Correspondent

Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders  announced the ethics agreement first in a press release, then at a news conference, but they did not actually release the bill for public scrutiny until a day later.

The 114 page legislation reveals that Governor Cuomo who has championed ethics reform, had to make some concessions to the legislature in order to reach the accord. For instance, there are a number of restrictions on how corruption investigations can be launched through the new ethics panel, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE.

The legislature will appoint 8 of the 14 commission members, the governor appoints 6,  3 Democrats and 3 Republicans . But a small number of commissioners can veto a corruption probe. If just two of a governor’s three Democratic Party commissioners don’t want an investigation, they can prevent it, even if the other 12 commissioners say they think a probe is warranted. A combination of 3 commissioners appointed by the legislative leaders can also block an investigation even if the other 11 members want a probe.  

Cuomo said that the restrictions are an attempt to limit the potential for "political witch-hunts" in the future, if there is an imbalance between the parties, as exist now.  Democrats currently control the governor’s office and Assembly while Republicans have just the Senate. The governor said there was also constitutional separation of powers issues to consider.

“This is a very imperfect science,” Cuomo said. “You’re trying to balance conflicting needs.”

But some government reform advocates, say the criteria may be too complicated.  Dick Dadey, with Citizens Union, said he understands the need to prevent potential “political witch hunts” in the future.

“They wanted some protection to ensure that this was not used inappropriately,” Dadey said.

Russ Haven, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said he would "prefer" that it be easier to launch an investigation, but also understands the need for political "safeguards."  Haven said we’ll know soon enough after the law takes effect, later in the fall, whether it works or not.

“If you see gridlock at the commission, then you know we’ve got trouble and there’s more work to be done,” Haven said.

There will be an opportunity to assess the commission’s performance. The bill requires a review commission to be set up in 2014. It will report on the ethics law successes and failures by March of 2015.

There’s another sign of a change made to reassure Senate Republicans, who are currently outnumbered in state government. Under the bill, the GOP Senate appoints three of the four commissioners for the Senate. A clause in the legislation states that even if Republicans lose the Senate to Democrats in the future, they still get to appoint the majority of the commissioners, in perpetuity. A spokesman for the Senate Democrats, Austin Shafran, said Democrats have some concerns over the GOP’s  "insistence on retaining permanent partisan control," and said it could "detract"  from the commission’s "independence and effectiveness."

Dadey , with Citizens Union who backed the bill, said some deals had to be struck to get ethics reform at all, and he’s trying to look at the bigger picture.

“It’s not an ideal bill,” Dadey said. “but it will change the way the game is played in Albany.”

Dadey also said that, however JCOPE is structured, individual commissioners have their own reputation and integrity to maintain, independent of the politician who appointed them. He said former Governor David Paterson’s own appointee on an ethics panel sided against the governor when Paterson was accused, and later fined, for inappropriately accepting tickets to a New York Yankees World Series game.


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