JCOPE’s corrupting power
It was always a reasonable guess that appointees of various top politicians on the state’s ultra-secretive Joint Commission of Public Ethics were protecting their patrons and their patrons’ cronies from investigations. Now the speculation is over.
The public got a firsthand look last week at exactly how Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s appointees on JCOPE are able to shield his administration from even a whiff of scrutiny. They were able to fend off an investigation even though they don’t hold a majority on the panel.
Add that to the already conclusive case that JCOPE is a sham of an ethics enforcement body, a commission of politicians, by politicians, and for politicians.
At issue was a request to have JCOPE issue a subpoena seeking information about unpaid volunteers who are involved, sometimes in highly influential ways, in the state’s COVID-19 response. Under an executive order signed by Mr. Cuomo last year, the volunteers are exempt from the usual ethics disclosure forms that would reveal any conflicts of interest they might encounter in their public service. The subpoena, proposed by JCOPE Commissioner Gary Lavine, would have looked at who has not filed disclosures, and whether they had recused themselves from any matters that might pose a conflict of interest. A fair good-government question, especially on a matter of such critical public interest involving untold millions or billions in spending of public funds.
It’s worth noting that the Times Union had filed a Freedom of Information request for such information, but the Cuomo administration says it has no records to that effect. That’s pretty sloppy — so sloppy it’s hard to believe.
The vote for the subpoena was 7-6, with Mr. Lavine, a Senate Republican appointee, and six other legislatively appointed JCOPE commissioners voting for the subpoena, and all of Mr. Cuomo’s six appointees voting against it. But under the panel’s intricate voting rules, the subpoena needed eight votes to be approved. There might have been an eighth vote if only Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins had filled a vacancy on the commission, but she hadn’t for over two years as of the time the vote was taken Tuesday. So, no subpoena. These 7-6 defeats turn out to be not unusual.
Mr. Cuomo’s appointees argue that JCOPE has no jurisdiction over volunteers, another claim so tenuous that they also voted down a proposal to ask the attorney general for a legal opinion on it.
It’s enough to make a person wonder what Mr. Cuomo is so determined to hide.
But even more, it underscores how JCOPE is a decade-long insult to New Yorkers that Mr. Cuomo and legislative leaders continue to try to pass off as good government.
Surely Ms. Stewart-Cousins knows this, having had to search for years for someone willing to serve on the board — a task she finally accomplished only last week.
Surely Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie knows this, having been made well aware that the governor has a pipeline — a possibly illegal one — that allows him to keep tabs on JCOPE’s supposedly secret deliberations.
And surely Mr. Cuomo knows it, having enjoyed for years the get-out-of-probes-free card that comes with having such inordinate control over JCOPE’s operations.
If Mr. Cuomo and the Legislature want to accomplish one good-government reform this year, it needs to be this: Get rid of JCOPE, and replace it with a truly independent ethics watchdog. The current panel is not an antidote to corruption. Its brazen manipulation makes it the embodiment of it.