As Karen DeWitt reports, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, by law begins its work on Tuesday.
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Governor Cuomo named Janet DiFiore, the District Attorney of Westchester County, to chair the commission. He also appointed Seymour Knox the IV, who is VP of Corporate Relations for the Buffalo Sabres, as well as the chair of a private equity firm, and Mitra Hormozi, who worked for Cuomo when he was Attorney General.
Senate Leader Dean Skelos picks include former Western New York State Senator Mary Lou Rath. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver chose former state budget director Patrick Bulgaro.
Since the new ethics law was signed last August, there has been a kind of limbo period, with no active investigations of lawmakers for any alleged ethics violations. Governor Cuomo, speaking on Long island earlier in the day says that now changes.
“The commission will begin immediately,” Cuomo said.
Government reform groups say they are hopeful that JCOPE will function better than the body it replaces, the controversial Commission on Public Integrity, designed by former Governor Eliot Spitzer. Dick Dadey is with Citizen’s Union.
“I expect a much more rigorous and robust enforcement of the state ethics laws,” said Dadey.
Dadey says the former ethics agency contained a fatal flaw. It was controlled by the governor’s appointments.
Although, after Spitzer resigned in disgrace, the commission did successfully pursue ethics charges against his successor, Governor David Paterson, for accepting free tickets to a Yankees World Series game.
The structure of the new ethics commission is not perfect, either, advocates say. While the appointments are more evenly divided between the governor and the legislature, government reform groups complained about rules that allowed as few as two or three of the commissioners to block an investigation.
Dadey, with Citizens Union, says it’s a concern, but he says he understands why the protections were put into the law. Democrats outnumber Republicans in state government, and the GOP wanted a fair playing field, fearing a “partisan witch hunt.”
The new ethics agreement eases some restrictions on receptions that lobbying groups can hold for lawmakers. A previous rule barred legislators from accepting any food or drink above what was considered nominal value, the price of a cup of coffee. That caused a number of organizations to be fined for holding their traditional annual legislative receptions. The new ethics rules permit legislators to eat and drink at the gatherings, as long as it’s widely attended, and 25 or more non politicians are present.
Dadey, with Citizens Union, sees no problem with that, saying government should be “fun” sometimes.
And there’s another change. For the first time, State Senators and Assemblymembers will be under the jurisdiction of a joint ethics commission. Up until now, legislators in each house had their own ethics investigation committee. But those committees were criticized for hardly ever probing any alleged transgression. Legislators still retain the power to punish any legislators found guilty of ethics violations.