Gotham Gazette Thu, 19 Jul 2018 13:59:03 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Proposal Would Mandate Media Blitz for City's Anti-Corruption Efforts lead photo

Council Member Vincent Gentile (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

The City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on Monday to discuss three bills, including one which would require the Department of Investigation to conduct an annual public outreach campaign to inform New Yorkers about how to identify corruption and use the resources of the DOI to file corruption complaints.

The Department of Investigation, the city’s independent watchdog agency, is responsible for investigating wrongdoing by city agencies, officers, elected officials, and entities and individuals who do business with the city. Intro. 1618, sponsored by Council Member Vincent Gentile, chair of the committee, would require that the DOI launch annual advertising campaigns intended to educate the public about its anti-corruption efforts, as well as require the department to file an annual report detailing the complaints received and disaggregate them by “agency, month, type of misconduct, and the mechanism through which the complaint was submitted.”

“I commend the commissioner and the department for committing valuable resources to raising awareness of the importance the public plays in assisting the DOI in weeding out corruption,” Council Member Gentile said in his opening statement.

In 2016, the DOI launched a series of ads on city buses and subways with slogans such as “Bribery and corruption are a trap. Don’t get caught up,” and “Get the worms out of the Big Apple,” to encourage New Yorkers to report instances of corruption through its complaints hotline. The campaign cost $312,000, financed through asset forfeiture funds from defendants of DOI investigations. Within the first four months of the 2017 fiscal year, complaints filed to the DOI increased by eight percent compared with the number of complaints filed in 2016. The DOI cited the 2016 outreach campaign as the main reason for this increase. Gentile’s proposed bill would expand the campaign to print, radio, and other public forums.

Representatives from DOI were invited to testify at Monday’s hearing, but Commissioner Mark Peters was unable to attend. Other DOI staff were in attendance but did not testify. When Council Member Rory Lancman asked about the commissioner’s absence, Council Member Gentile stated, “I don’t know the particulars” and noted that “the Department of Investigation has indicated to me that they will send a letter to the Council by the end of this week, which will be used as testimony as part of this record.”

In an email to Gotham Gazette, a DOI spokesperson said, "DOI agrees with the City Council about the importance of public outreach and is working with the Council on the details of this legislation."

Brandon Muir, executive director of Reclaim NY, a non-profit organization aimed at increasing transparency in government, was the only member of the public to offer testimony on the potential impact of the bill. “As a strong defender of the taxpayer in New York, it will be important for the campaign to identify and make public specific metrics that judge the efficacy of the ad campaigns," he said. "Consistent citizen oversight relies on citizens understanding that the rules of the game exist.”

Council Member Gentile asked Muir if he believed an increase in advertisements would actually help in combatting fraud and corruption. “Of course, and I would look to ‘See Something, Say Something,’” Muir said, referring to the Department of Homeland Security’s national ad campaign that seeks the public's help in identifying potential terror threats. “I mean, that’s now something I think I’ve heard on Saturday Night Live, it’s become such a popular moniker,” Muir added.

But Muir also acknowledged that the success of the DOI's campaign would largely be determined by whether or not citizens would continue to stay involved in the oversight process in the long term. “I think we need to look at it in the context of an ongoing effort to increase transparency,” he said, “not just a one time statement or a one time bill.”

This article has been updated.

Proposal Would Mandate Media Blitz for City's Anti-Corruption Efforts Mon, 19 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Standards and Ethics Committee to Again Examine Conflicts of Interest Board chambers

City Council Chambers (photo: William Alatriste)

"If you have a question about whether your conduct is allowed under the City's ethics law, press two," says one part of the automated response a caller hears after dialing the Conflicts of Interest Board.

As preliminary budget hearings continue this week at the City Council, the Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) will be examined to ensure that it is fulfilling its role in preventing corruption and properly funded to do so. The Council's Standards and Ethics Committee, chaired by Council Member Alan Maisel and with oversight of the COIB and ethical protocols among city officials, is holding its preliminary budget hearing on Thursday.

The hearing comes at a time when corruption and ethics have been all over the news as state-level lawmakers continue to wind up in handcuffs, accused of both legal and illegal wrongdoing, and engage in negotiations over reforms. Officials at the city level have not been without scandal, of course, and there has been increased scrutiny of late on the City's Department of Investigations (DOI).

The Council's Standards and Ethics Committee does not oversee the DOI, but with oversight over the COIB, similar issues come up - namely that of independence.

The Standards and Ethics Committee has punitive powers, but has rarely needed to exercise them in the past few years save for two recent cases, those pertaining to Council Member Ruben Wills, a Democrat, and former Council Member Dan Halloran, a Republican, both of Queens.

Wills was recently arrested for the second time in as many years. He has been indicted this time around for filing false documents with the COIB. Dan Halloran was sentenced last week for corruption and bribery in trying to aid former State Senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, in bribing his way onto the 2013 ballot for Mayor as a Republican. Halloran was sentenced to ten years in prison.

Last month, the Standards and Ethics Committee held an oversight hearing to discuss the two cases. Requests for comment made to Maisel's office were referred to the committee's general counsel, who did not respond to calls or messages.

Thursday's budget hearing of the committee will be, for the most part, an opportunity for the COIB to present its annual report. The COIB implements and enforces New York City conflict of interest laws. It also educates city employees on ethical requirements, acts in an advisory capacity to current and former employees, and oversees financial disclosure for elected officials.

A spokesperson for the COIB declined to comment ahead of the hearing.

In recent years, the COIB's workload has increased but staff numbers and budget have barely changed. According to the COIB's annual report, the board conducted 599 training sessions last year, up 11 percent from 506 in 2013. In 2001, only 190 sessions were conducted. COIB received 488 new complaints in 2014, marginally lower than the 506 in 2013, but almost four times the number from 2001 (124 complaints). There were 4,950 total requests for legal advice from current or former city officials, compared to 4,088 the previous year and 2,189 in 2001.

Despite this increased burden, the budget for the COIB has increased from $1.69 million in 2002 to a proposed $2.11 million for this year as outlined in Mayor Bill de Blasio's fiscal year 2016 preliminary budget. (It was $2.03 million in fiscal 2014). The staff strength stands at 22, actually one less than in 2001.

At last year's executive budget hearing, COIB Executive Director Mark Davies said in his testimony that the Board was "just about at where we should be" in terms of manpower and resources. But, he ceded that maintaining the quality of the staff depended on ensuring a steady budget and possible future budget cuts would be draconian and dangerous.

Herein lies the most COIB's most important concern. Although it is a non-mayoral agency in function, it has an almost contradictory structure. The board has five members, approved by the City Council and appointed by the Mayor, who serve staggered six-year terms and can be reappointed for a second term. With the Mayor's involvement and the Council's consent key to these appointments, the contradiction in the board's mandate is apparent. COIB members are not only charged with enforcing rules on the very people, mayoral staff and council members, who make their appointments, but who decide the board's budget. Therefore, each year, the COIB advocates for a charter amendment to provide it with independent budgeting.

"Our mission is to guide honest officials thereby promoting both the reality and the perception of integrity in government by preventing conflicts of interest violations from ever occurring," said Davies in his 2014 testimony. "In other words we are in the prevention business, not in the punishment business, thus perhaps most importantly the board reiterates a concern that it has expressed for many, many years: the lack of an independent budget."

Such a charter amendment would need widespread support since it can only be passed by referendum or through state legislation.

Good government groups are on board with COIB's proposal. "Independent budgeting is an important fail safe for agencies that conduct oversight, like the COIB," said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy for Citizens Union. "Codifying this in law will ensure that it continues to receive sufficient resources, regardless of the administration that is in office."

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said COIB has a strong reputation for objectivity. "Could it be strengthened by being more independent? Possibly," she said. But a significant measure, she said, would be "a full outside evaluation of how things are being handled by the board. From an anecdotal point of view, not from any systematic review, there seems to be a bias towards the executive."

Considering the focus on ethics reforms over the last year, at both city and state levels, and the Council's recent critique of the Department of Investigation's apparent performance decline, the COIB may do well to take this opportunity to ask for a larger budget and push for complete independence. Not only would that help protect against future uncertainty but also ensure it is not beholden to the whims of political forces. As its annual report states, "Ethics lights the way to good government."

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union

Standards and Ethics Committee to Again Examine Conflicts of Interest Board Wed, 11 Mar 2015 17:31:42 +0000