Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/244 Wed, 11 Dec 2019 00:12:10 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Council Votes For Suspension, Against Expulsion of Council Member Andy King for Extensive Ethics Violations https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8883-city-council-suspends-council-member-andy-king-ethics-violations https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8883-city-council-suspends-council-member-andy-king-ethics-violations cm king do

Council Member Andy King (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The New York City Council voted on Monday to suspend Bronx Council Member Andy King for 30 days without pay and imposed several other disciplinary measures following repeated ethics violations by King that were recently substantiated by the Council’s ethics committee.

King, a Democrat, was the subject of a monthslong investigation by the Council’s Committee on Standards and Ethics, the Office of General Counsel, and outside prosecutor Carrie Cohen, who found that the Council member engaged in a pattern of harassment against aides, retaliated against employees who filed ethics complaints against him, fostered a hostile work environment, misused office resources, and allowed his wife, Neva Shillingford-King, to supervise office staff in clear conflicts of interest.

By a vote of 44-1, the full Council approved a resolution that contained 10 disciplinary recommendations based on a 48-page report from the ethics committee. Besides the suspension, King will pay a $15,000 fine, be removed from all committee positions, and his office will be placed under an outside monitor for the remainder of his term. King was the only member to vote against the resolution. Council Members Inez Barron and I. Daneek Miller abstained from the vote. Council Members Fernando Cabrera, Ruben Diaz Sr., Alan Maisel and Francisco Moya were absent from the hearing.  

The monitor will have the authority to review and approve all hiring and firing decisions for King’s staff and will have access to email accounts of King and all his staff members. The Council will also ensure that employees who left King’s office after facing retaliation will have the opportunity to return to Council jobs. If King does not abide by the disciplinary measures, the Council could reopen proceedings against him.

“Those violations outlined in the report are appalling, particularly coming from an elected official who is duty-bound to serve the public,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson, prior to the vote.

Speaking of the staffers that King had harassed and retaliated against, Johnson said, “I am sickened by what they have endured because of Council Member King’s odious behavior. As for Council Member King, I deplore his cowardice and the disdain with which he treated his employees, the committee, and this entire body.”

Though there have been calls for King’s resignation, including from Speaker Johnson, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, several Council members, and others, there was broad hesitation from Council members at expelling King from the body.

Council members worried that there may be legal consequences to going beyond the ethics committee’s recommendations. Speaker Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, and Council Member Steven Matteo, a Staten Island Republican and chair of the ethics committee, repeatedly noted that King is facing the harshest punishment ever doled out by the Council and that the committee had undertaken a deliberative investigation and its recommendations were appropriate.

“The committee exhaustively deliberated and debated the terms of this resolution, and concluded that the suspension is significant enough that it will function both as a deterrent against future bad behavior, and also give us the chance to get a monitor in place in Council Member King's office who can develop a relationship with staff before Council Member King returns,” Matteo said on the Council floor.

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, a Queens Democrat, was the only member to call for King to be expelled from the legislative body ahead of the vote. At Monday’s hearing, he introduced an amendment to the resolution to expel King, but it failed with 12 votes in favor and 34 against in the 51-seat chamber. Besides Van Bramer, the Council members who voted for the amendment included Costa Constantinides, Rafael Espinal, Rory Lancman, Carlos Menchaca, Bill Perkins, Keith Powers, Antonio Reynoso, Donovan Richards, Helen Rosenthal, Mark Treyger and Eric Ulrich. Council Member Mathieu Eugene abstained.  

Van Bramer said he felt compelled to introduce the amendment after King displayed a lack of contrition over his behavior. “While I was prepared to make the amendment, it was only after I heard Council Member King speak that I knew that I had to,” he said. “And the absolute lack of remorse, the absolute lack of even understanding that anything had been done wrong, anything, blaming other Council members, blaming lawyers, blaming staff. That to me is just even more of the pattern of behavior that brought us to this moment in the first place.”

The committee’s report noted that King was uncooperative throughout its investigation, seeking to delay and obstruct its work. At Monday’s hearing, King was defiant, alleging that he had been deprived of his due process rights and that the report contained “outright lies” about him. 

“I'm a man who's very respectful, full of integrity, stands for something, doesn't fall for anything and everything. And because people say things sometimes, don't necessarily make it true,” he said.

He even sought a temporary restraining order against the Council’s vote in Manhattan Supreme Court but was unsuccessful. He could possibly seek an injunction against the enforcement of the resolution but Johnson was confident that the Council’s move would hold up to legal scrutiny.

Matteo, however, rebutted King’s arguments, pointing out that King and his lawyers had ample time to respond to the committee’s charges and that King did not appear at a two-day trial held by the ethics committee. “Indeed, instead of cooperating Council Member King attempted to make a mockery of this committee, and the Council's rules and policies,” Matteo said.

This isn’t King’s first run-in with the ethics committee. He was previously disciplined for paying unwanted attention to a female staff member and ordered to undergo additional sensitivity training. That Council employee, Chloë Rivera, who now works as senior legislative policy analyst for the Committees on Women and Gender Equity and on Higher Education, revealed her identity in an op-ed in the New York Daily News on Monday, calling on the Council to remove King from office.

“Our elected officials must choose to set the right precedent,” she wrote. “They must establish a standard that worker abuse and witness intimidation and retaliation will not be tolerated, that repeat abusers are unfit to serve and will be removed from office.”

Several Council members who approved of Van Bramer’s amendment cited Rivera’s experience as the reason for their vote. Rivera previously worked as a legislative aide for former Assembly Member Vito Lopez and was among several aides who filed sexual harassment complaints against him. Lopez eventually resigned when threatened with expulsion from the Assembly. Rivera watched Monday’s hearing from the balcony in the Council chambers and later expressed her disappointment with the proceedings. “I'm very disappointed that the motion to expel did not pass but I am satisfied that he is going to suffer some consequences for his actions,” she told Gotham Gazette in a brief interview. 

Among the findings of the latest investigation into King was new evidence that the Council member had retaliated against Rivera after her 2017 complaint. At a staff meeting at his home, King disclosed Rivera’s name, questioned her integrity, and called on his staff members to be loyal to him. “Following my first complaint in 2017...he did not receive adequate consequences for his actions,” Rivera said Monday. “And so that resulted in a fallout, which ended up emboldening him and enraging him and taking it out on his staff. It's disappointing and I think it will put a chilling effect on other survivors or other victims from coming forward at the Council who are being victimized by members.” She hoped that the Council would consider strengthening its rules regarding harassment so that there are more clear-cut consequences.

The Sexual Harassment Working Group, which is made up of former and current aides to state legislators and has been leading advocacy efforts for stronger sexual harassment protections in the state and city, said the Council should not let King off easy.

“If the City Council wants to keep any credibility in the arena of sexual harassment protections, it must lead now, by setting the precedent that it will not tolerate harassment or retaliation against its own workers,” the group wrote in a statement. “City Council staff cannot afford to allow the Council to backtrack on progress made since #MeToo went viral. Anything less than expulsion will send a chilling message to victims that they will not only be denied justice, but they will not be protected from serial predators.”

Johnson has also referred the case against King to outside investigators, which could potentially mean criminal charges for the Council member. Johnson would not say which authorities he made the referral to.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note - this article has been updated. 

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City Council Votes For Suspension, Against Expulsion of Council Member Andy King for Extensive Ethics Violations Mon, 28 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Ethics Officials from Around the Globe Discuss Challenges, Strategies https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8623-ethics-officials-from-around-the-globe-discuss-challenges-strategies https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8623-ethics-officials-from-around-the-globe-discuss-challenges-strategies bdb remarks class

(photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)


“In some ways, we are all victims of corruption,” Huguette Labelle told attendees of the Global Cities III conference Thursday morning, giving opening remarks at the two-day event organized by Columbia University’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity. The event brings together leaders and ethics officials from major cities across the world, including New York City and Barcelona.

Labelle was the board chair of Transparency International, a non-governmental organization with the mission of combating global corruption with chapters in over 100 countries. She delivered the keynote address Thursday in Manhattan, making a direct connection between corruption and a lower quality of life for citizens. Corruption, Labelle said, “manifests itself with poverty around the world and a lack of essential servings, creating a barrier for justice to take place and regulations to be implemented.”

More directly, she declared “corruption is a crime against humanity that has many faces.” Labelle’s speech and the ensuing panel discussion, which featured Carolyn Miller of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board, considered several contemporary problems and best practices for public integrity.

A recurring theme, brought up by Labelle and other speakers, was the need for transparency in governmental contracts with private businesses. Transparency can be beneficial for both good government purposes, but also for the businesses that seek these contracts. She told the audience, “businesses are victims [of corruption], too.” One proposal that she said worked well in other countries was “getting businesses to publish what they pay” as part of winning government contracts.

She used an example of a Norwegian company doing business in an African country. A governmental official asked the company for a bribe to ensure that they were awarded the contract. When the company informed the official that Norwegian law would require them to publicize this as part of their transparency law, “that was the end of discussion” regarding the bribe.

Corruption in the process for awarding contracts for infrastructure projects can cost taxpayers up to 50% more than what the project would normally. “This means that the quality of the infrastructure is not what’s required,” Labelle said, which will lead to infrastructure lasting for shorter periods of time and requiring frequent costly repairs.”

In the ensuing panel discussion entitled “Effective Ethics Systems for Local and National Governments and Intergovernmental Organizations,” four integrity officials from New York City, the United Nations, Barcelona, and Cape Town discussed what they do well and what challenges they face in the positions.

Gemma Clavert, the director of the Transparency Agency of the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona, said that while her agency is officially independent of the government, “really it’s not correct” because her agency’s budget is set by the officials she is tasked with holding accountable.

“In order to be effective, we need autonomy,” Calvert said, adding that independence is impossible “if you depend on another service the bigger structure.”

New York City’s 2019 Charter Revision Commission recently put forward a proposal for independent budgeting for the Public Advocate and the Borough Presidents, elected officials who are supposed to at least in part act as checks on the mayoral administration, which largely determines the city budget. There has also been discussion about the need for the city’s Conflict of Interest Board (COIB) to have independent budgeting. COIB currently relies on the Mayor and City Council, whom the board is tasked with overseeing, for its funding.

COIB monitors potential conflicts of interest and enforces the ethics code for New York City’s over 325,000-person workforce, from the Mayor to City Council to Department of Sanitation workers, teachers, and beyond.

Miller, COIB’s executive director, said, “it’s a challenge to reach so many people,” for training and educating city employees about potential conflicts of interest. Noting the wide variety of jobs in city government, one of Miller’s biggest challenges is “getting humans in a room.” She pointed to teachers and sanitation workers as two professions where schedules and work conditions do not allow them to take time out of their day for a training on conflicts of interest.

Elia Armstrong, the director of the U.N. Secretariat’s Ethics Offices, said that her office recently saw a spike in the volume of sexual harassment reports it received after it conducted a series of training sessions on the issue. She said this is emblematic of a trend where reports for a particular issue area often spike in the aftermath of her office providing training on that issue.

“One of the things we’re most proud of,” Miller said, was the promptness with which COIB responds to requests for ethics advice. She brought up the board’s attorney-of-the-day hotline, where the public can receive legally-binding conflict-of-interest advice from a staff attorney. The board receives 400-500 requests for advice per month, through phone calls and emails, and most of those are answered within the same day, Miller said.

Armstrong noted how important that is because officials often wait until the last minute to seek counsel on potential conflicts. She said many U.N. officials, for example, wait until the day before a speaking engagement to check with the ethics office to see if there may be a conflict of interest, putting her office in a difficult position.

Miller also spoke about the need for confidentiality when giving advice to public officials. It is necessary for officials to have a “safe space,” where they feel that they can go to seek ethical advice, or the system would not work. “The only way people feel they can be transparent is confidentiality,” Miller said.

“There’s the political world to deal with” when fighting corruption, noted Marianne Camerer, the director of the Building Bridges Program at the University of Cape Town’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance. For example, she said, the Mayor of Durban, South Africa, Zandile Gumede was suspended from office over corruption charges relating to a waste management contract. Her supporters then marched, demanding that she be reinstated.

Comparing that case with New York City, Miller said “the kinds of desperate ethical issues we deal with are city employees wanting to take free tickets” for baseball games. Instead of marches in the streets, COIB faces “the righteous indignation of someone who can’t take free Yankees tickets.”

When asked by the moderator about New York City being a “one-party town,” Miller said that “even though New York City is mostly Democrat, there are only so many positions” and “ethics can become political” when politicians seek to distinguish themselves from the competition, so confidentiality is important, because COIB does not want to influence the political process.

Miller also noted some emerging trends in the types of conflicts-of-interests cases her office reviews. Social media use, second jobs, and political speech rank among the top issues that COIB currently contends with.

With the rise of ride-hail apps and similar services, many city employees seek out permissions from COIB to work part-time as Uber or Lyft drivers, for example, as a means of earning a supplemental income.

Additionally, city employees are prohibited from using their offices for political purposes. This means that they should not be promoting political causes from their official social media accounts.

A question Miller said that the board often faces is “what is political and what is policy?” She gave an example of a public official speaking out against the federal government’s immigration policy as an example of a gray area for this rule. Just in the last several days, two City Council members requested that COIB investigate Department of Education officials’ involvement in a press conference in support of Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza organized by the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus (BLAC).

COIB will have to decide if DOE officials were supporting Carranza’s policy or engaging in political activity, although the investigation request itself has been seen as political. As Camerer noted at Global Cities, “there’s a whole politics to this” and all four panelists noted that integrity investigations can be difficult when they overlap with political battles.

Frequently, throughout their panel discussion, the four integrity officials commented that they would seek to incorporate ideas that their peers on the panel had discussed. Armstrong expressed admiration for COIB’s attorney of the day hotline and fast response time to advice requests, saying that she would like to implement both at the United Nations.

In her opening remarks, Labelle told the audience that there are many current challenges to public integrity, from the “shrinking space of civil society and the media” to the withdrawal in “commitments to international treaties” to “A.I. and big data becoming both part of the solution, but also a facilitator of all types of corruption.”

She said “the rule of law remains a top priority,” but said that “the other part is enforcement.” It is not simply enough to have strong anti-corruption laws on the books, but those laws must be properly enforced to be effective, she said.

In discussing the myriad of problems that currently threaten public integrity, all of the speakers appeared to agree on a common theme, expressed by Camerer, that “ethics needs to come back on the agenda.”

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette
   

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Ethics Officials from Around the Globe Discuss Challenges, Strategies Thu, 20 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
'So Completely Compromised': New York Watchdog Agencies Have a Credibility Problem https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8554-new-york-watchdog-agencies-have-credibility-problem https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8554-new-york-watchdog-agencies-have-credibility-problem mayor commissioner exec

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayoral Photography Office)


In January, the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a governmental watchdog agency, revealed that it had held a closed-door vote on a potential ethics investigation into a former top aide to Governor Andrew Cuomo. The aide, Joe Percoco, was convicted on federal corruption charges in a highly publicized trial that also laid bare work he had done from his executive chamber office while on leave to work for the governor’s campaign.

Despite the obvious appearance of an ethics violation, JCOPE only held a vote on an investigation when its commissioners’ hands were forced through a lawsuit -- and even then, the outcome remains shrouded in mystery because JCOPE refuses to announce it to the public.

Created in 2011 to monitor the behavior of more than 250,000 public officials and to enforce state lobbying laws, JCOPE has become the epitome of New York State’s lax ethical oversight, and the agency’s opacity is a source of widespread consternation. As is the case with other watchdog entities, JCOPE has to balance the privacy of individuals against its duty to inform the public and instill confidence that it is effectively carrying out its work.

By design, many of these agencies are not required to inform the public about the complaints they receive, or are prohibited from doing so to prevent reputational harm against individuals or entities that may be the subject of a complaint. But good government groups say that must change in order to build trust in institutions, and that the public would be better served if agencies provided more transparency about how they handle complaints and report on outcomes of investigations.

JCOPE is just one of several governmental watchdog entities in New York, but its lack of disclosure is not unique. Among a variety of governmental bodies with mandates to scrutinize elections violations, nonprofit fundraising, and public integrity, there’s no standard protocol for reporting on the number and status of complaints received, the investigations initiated or concluded, or the final disposition and enforcement actions taken.

It’s true in many cases at both the state and city levels: other such entities include the State Board of Elections, the Inspector General, the New York City Department of Investigation, and the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board.

In New York City, for instance, recent news reports revealed that though two agencies had concluded that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fundraising practices during his first term violated guidance about conflicts of interest rules, the mayor did not face any punitive action and neither agency -- the Conflicts of Interest Board and Department of Investigation -- publicly disclosed that it had ended its investigation or the results. Even after news outlets reported on the general conclusions of those agencies, the specific reports and their findings were either heavily redacted or kept secret.

Government reform advocates say some agencies aren’t following the letter of the law in reporting on their work, and they argue that all the agencies, either proactively or through legal mandates, should be releasing more information than they currently do.

“We feel like there’s inconsistency across the many enforcement entities in New York State as to how they make known, or don’t make known, the way they process complaints,” said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor for Reinvent Albany, a good government group. “And generally speaking we’d like to see more transparency. At the very least, complainants ought to be told what the outcome is of their complaint after a period of time has passed, if not immediately.

This criticism rings particularly true in a recent case regarding an allegation of sexual misconduct against former State Senator Jeff Klein by a former aide, Erica Vladimer. JCOPE has refused to reveal the status of its investigation into the matter -- even to Vladimer, she has said.  

Camarda acknowledged that agencies have a duty to maintain confidentiality. Accusations of impropriety against an elected official, public servant, or candidate for office could serve to harm them if they are publicized but later found untrue. This would be particularly important in the case of spurious complaints, which agencies regularly receive and dismiss on a lack of merit.

But, Camarda said, “that hasn’t been the problem in New York State.”

“In this state, we’ve erred more on the side of protecting the reputation of the accused rather than transparency of complaints, and I think the pendulum needs to swing in the other direction, towards transparency,” he added. “The problem has not been that people are wrongly accused and their reputation is sullied as a result. The problem has been lack of enforcement. So we need to compensate for that by having greater transparency with how complaints are handled and making that known to the complainant and to the public.”

Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE)
The lawsuit over the Percoco matter, brought by New York State Republican Party Chair Ed Cox, was not the first time JCOPE was compelled by the courts to vote on an issue. In 2014, Donald Trump sued the agency to hold a vote on his complaint against then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office was suing Trump over fraud claims related to the now-defunct Trump University.

In both cases, JCOPE did not hold a vote within 60 days of receiving a complaint, as required under state law, raising questions about how regularly it flouts requirements. Even after holding a vote, JCOPE doesn’t disclose whether it voted to open an investigation -- the agency is exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Law, as well as from the Open Meetings Law.   

Under the law, JCOPE only makes public the results of a Substantial Basis Investigation, which involves a more detailed probe of a particular complaint. (In case the complaint involves a member of or candidate for state Legislature, or a legislative employee, the agency isn’t authorized to impose any penalties, however, and refers the matter to the Legislative Ethics Commission.) Substantial basis investigation reports are also published online with related documents detailing the complaint and settlement reached.

While it has a broad mandate, in 2018 the commission processed 257 matters across a range of possible violations including conflicts of interest, nepotism, improper gifts, failure to file financial disclosure statements, and post-employment restrictions, according to its annual report.

Those 257 matters resulted in 27 investigations initiated. By the end of 2018, JCOPE had 38 open investigations and 93 matters pending review. The report only includes data in the aggregate, which, Camarda of Reinvent Albany pointed out, is in fact more transparent than other agencies but does not seem to fully comply with the law, which requires the agency to report a list of complaints and referrals received alleging violations, and the status of each complaint.

JCOPE spokesperson Walter McClure disagreed with this reading of the law, saying the agency cannot release certain information “because it would be providing confidential information to people who should not have access to it….[A]nything that has to do with an investigative matter is subject to the confidentiality provision and we cannot make it public unless or until the Commission votes to allow that.”

“This is just one small niche issue in a bigger enforcement system that we believe is a problem, and that is, we file these complaints, they seem to go into a black hole and we don’t get a lot of information back as to what happens, at any point,” Camarda said.

Reinvent Albany was among several civic organizations that sent a letter to Governor Cuomo and state legislative leaders on May 16, calling for an overhaul of ethics enforcement by amending the state constitution. The coalition of groups -- including NYPIRG, Citizens Union, New York City Bar Association, Common Cause NY, and others -- surveyed ethics agencies in 50 states and found that New York’s agencies, including JCOPE, are “among the very weakest in the nation” on independence and public accountability. “Few, if any, other states have ethics watchdogs so completely compromised by lack of independence, partisanship, lack of transparency and the other failings described,” the survey noted.

As the groups noted, JCOPE’s structure and independence, or lack thereof, have been a perennial cause for frustration. The agency’s commissioners are appointed by the state Legislature and the governor, who also chooses its chair. The executive director is appointed by a majority of the commissioners. The agency’s three executive directors so far have been close allies of Cuomo. Seth Agata, who was previously counsel to the governor, currently holds the position but recently announced that he would be departing for a job with a law firm.

The call for an ethics agency overhaul has been echoed by state lawmakers. Among them is state Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat who has proposed an amendment to the state constitution to replace JCOPE with a ‘truly independent’ state ethics commission. [Read: ‘It’s just not designed to do its job’: Will New York reform its state ethics agency?]

“[O]ur official position has been, and remains, that when it comes to calls for reform/changes to the Commission and the proposed constitutional amendment that calls for a replacement for the Commission, it is up to the Executive and the Legislature to make decisions about the laws that govern what we do and how we do it,” said McClure, in response, noting that JCOPE itself has made legislative recommendations in the past to strengthen its authority.

State Board of Elections
In 2014, the state election law was amended to create a new independent enforcement division headed by a chief enforcement counsel, a role that has only been held by Risa Sugarman, who was nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Legislature. The creation of the division and Sugarman’s appointment was meant to depoliticize the agency, whose commissioners are appointed on party lines, and lend credibility to the BOE’s oversight of election and campaign finance violations.

As with JCOPE, the BOE’s enforcement division has not been immune from criticism that it has failed to fulfil its obligations under the law and has shown minimal investigative activity. Last year, in an apparent power grab, the BOE commissioners voted to curtail the enforcement counsel’s power to issue subpoenas, and mandated that the division issue regular reports on investigations as well as complete them within six months.

At the time, BOE’s Democratic co-chair Douglas Kellner said it was prompted by the enforcement counsel’s failure to adequately investigate election law violations, despite thousands of referrals particularly related to candidates failing to file campaign finance disclosures. “I think it's pretty clear that I'm fed up with the current process of the enforcement unit,” Kellner said at the time.

At the root of that issue is the fact that the enforcement counsel’s unit is separate from the campaign finance compliance unit, which essentially keeps two oversight roles removed from each other. At public hearings, the compliance unit’s leadership has aired complaints that it receives little to no information from the enforcement unit.

“The BOE is its own strange animal,” said Camarda, of that structure. He added, “It’s the same problem we’re discussing as a good government group writ large but they can’t even find out within their own agency. And [Sugarman] argues that that’s an imposition on her work and the confidentiality of her work. It seems to me in the law and in the rules that the enforcement counsel is required to provide some transparency around the complaints that are received and how they’re handled.”

Reinvent Albany opposed the new restrictions on Sugarman’s subpoena authority but was supportive of the expanded disclosure on investigations and complaints. But, the reports -- with significant detail of complaints, investigations, and dispositions -- are only required to be sent to the BOE commissioners and co-executive directors. Reinvent Albany has pushed the Board to make the reports more broadly available to the public.

The numbers on the BOE’s 2017 annual report, the latest one available, bear out some of the critiques. The report notes that the division received 463 emailed questions and complaints from the public in the 2017 calendar year, but it does not mention how many complaints were received through telephone, snail mail, or other means.

Violations of state campaign finance law appear rampant but the BOE seems unable to properly uphold its mandate. In 2017, the enforcement division received 3,984 referrals from the compliance unit for non-filing of disclosures. By the end of the year, 2,880 still owed reports to the BOE. Additionally, 597 referrals were made for deficient filers who failed to comply after being informed that their disclosures were deficient. Between 2014 and 2017, the report noted, 2,101 referrals of deficient filers were made to the enforcement division; 329 were amended to fix deficiencies; one was deleted and 1,066 remained unresolved.

In total, the division opened 52 formal investigations and received authorization to issue subpoenas in four cases. Sugarman referred one case for further investigation and potential prosecution. And the division filed only six matters to go through a civil enforcement administrative hearing process.

In an email, BOE’s Sugarman declined to comment for this story.  

State Inspector General
The State Inspector General, a gubernatorial appointee, is charged with oversight of the state executive branch including every agency, department, division, commission, board, public authority, and public benefit corporation.

The IG’s office investigates allegations of criminal activity, corruption, and fraud and regularly makes referrals for criminal prosecution. According to the law, the office informs heads of agencies about investigative proceedings and releases public reports “as appropriate and to the extent permitted by law, subject to redaction to protect the confidentiality of witnesses.” The office often recommends reforms at state agencies and oversees their implementation.

Two other offices under the IG perform investigative roles dedicated to specific agencies and their services and purviews -- the Office of the Welfare Inspector General (OWIG), which oversees the provision of social services at the state and local level; and the Office of the Workers' Compensation Fraud Inspector General (WCFIG), which investigates violations of workers’ compensation laws (it also monitors the implementation of the state’s paid family leave program). Both these offices release annual reports detailing enforcement activity.

Until recently, Cuomo appointee Catherine Leahy Scott was in charge of all three offices. In January, Cuomo replaced her in the IG’s office with Letizia Tagliafierro, a longtime aide and former executive director of JCOPE. Leahy Scott continues to serve as acting welfare inspector general.

Among the three offices, the Inspector General alone does not release an annual report or make public the number of complaints received and investigated in a year.

In 2017, according to the latest annual report, the OWIG processed 650 complaints related to public assistance fraud, up from 562 complaints in 2016, about a 16 percent increase. The office’s investigations found more than $1.3 million in fraud and improper social service benefits payments. Twenty individuals were criminally prosecuted.

The WCFIG, in 2017, received 2,369 complaints, a more than 50 percent increase from 2016 (because of a new partnership with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which made a large number of referrals in one go). Investigations found more than $1,043,000 in fraud, resulting in  23 arrests and 38 criminal cases.

Though the IG’s office itself puts out public releases about the conclusions of investigations resulting in criminal charges, the office does not publish an annual report summarizing its enforcement activity. A spokesperson for the IG’s office noted that the office publishes information as required by statute and that each complaint is thoroughly reviewed.

New York City Department of Investigation (DOI)
The DOI is the independent watchdog that monitors city agencies and has broad authority to conduct criminal investigations and make arrests and prosecution referrals. The agency, whose head is nominated by the mayor and approved by the City Council, conducts background checks of city employees, investigates fraud and corruption, monitors firms that receive large city contracts, and conducts investigations for the Conflicts of Interest Board. DOI also examines systemic issues at agencies and recommends reforms to reduce inefficiency and the risk of corruption.

As with other enforcement agencies, DOI has strict confidentiality rules and does not disclose directly whether it is conducting an investigation based on a complaint. But the agency does annually report, in the aggregate, on the number of complaints received, investigated and closed.

Those numbers are published in the Mayor’s Management Report, tracking enforcement activity by the fiscal year, as well as in an end-of-calendar-year statistics report. In fiscal year 2018, for instance, DOI received 13,073 complaints, made 2,540 policy change recommendations, and conducted 389 lectures on corruption prevention and whistleblowers. The agency made 762 referrals for civil and administrative action, 860 referrals for criminal prosecution, and its investigations led to 661 arrests.

The Department also issues detailed public reports on investigations that are concluded.

“Complaints made to the New York City Department of Investigation are kept confidential to safeguard the integrity of DOI investigations and protect the individuals filing those complaints,” said a DOI spokesperson, in an email. “DOI is committed to a transparent, accountable government, frequently proactively publishing findings of closed investigations through its public reports, and adhering to the Freedom of Information Law, taking requests for documents seriously and following the law in responding to them.”

New York City Conflicts of Interest Board
As the investigation into Mayor de Blasio showed, the COIB can be an opaque agency at times. De Blasio’s fundraising for an outside nonprofit from individuals who had business with the city triggered investigations at the city, state, and federal level. The state and federal cases closed without any criminal charges. Recently, THE CITY revealed that DOI concluded the mayor had violated COIB guidance and run afoul of conflicts of interest and ethics laws.

But COIB could not say whether it took any action and could not publicly disclose either the status of the investigation or the conclusion reached by DOI. Last week, the Board formally created a rule addressing the type of fundraising activity the mayor was found to have engaged in, releasing a statement to clarify its position. The City Charter, which governs the COIB, places strict confidentiality requirements on the agency, so much so that it cannot even confirm nor deny if a complaint has been filed or investigated.  

“It was good that they put out that statement because ultimately it did clear things up,” said Camarda of the recent developments involving de Blasio, “but it points to the problem, which is, we could not actually tell as a good government group that follows these things, why they did not assess penalties against de Blasio.”

On the other hand, COIB does release aggregate data on enforcement action taken each year in its annual report. In 2018, for instance, the agency opened 392 cases, closed 404 cases, imposed fines in 92 matters, issued 6 public warning letter and 22 private warning letters, made 76 referrals to DOI and received 150 reports from DOI. The agency also discloses summaries in the annual report of the types of enforcement actions taken each year, and publicly releases the full details of the disposition of a matter, including individuals' names and the actions taken by them. 

[Read: De Blasio Fundraising Exposed Grey Area for Ethics Board]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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

Note - This article has been updated to clarify that COIB does publicly disclose names of individuals and the full details of a disposition of a matter. 

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'So Completely Compromised': New York Watchdog Agencies Have a Credibility Problem Tue, 28 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Alessandra Biaggi https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8261-max-murphy-podcast-state-senator-alessandra-biaggi https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8261-max-murphy-podcast-state-senator-alessandra-biaggi mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


February 7, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Alessandra Biaggi

alessandra biaggi 150Alessandra Biaggi shocked the New York political world when she defeated then-State Senator Jeff Klein in last September's primary. After hitting the ground running upon taking office in January, State Senator Biaggi joined the show to discuss the work that has been done so far under unified Democratic governance at the state level and what's coming up next, including her work as the new chair of the Senate's ethics committee and where things may get choppy with regard to negotiations with Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: State Senator Alessandra Biaggi Wed, 06 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Senate Democrats Pursue No Formal Consequences for Parker After 'Kill yourself!' Tweet https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8232-senate-democrats-pursue-no-formal-consequences-for-parker-after-kill-yourself-tweet https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8232-senate-democrats-pursue-no-formal-consequences-for-parker-after-kill-yourself-tweet parker aoc cm

Senator Parker, left, with Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins (photo: @SenatorParker)


The newly-seated Democratic majority in the state Senate does not seem inclined to take any formal action against one of its members, Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn, for an inappropriate Twitter outburst last month, directed at a Republican Senate staffer, or his apparent misuse of his official parking placard.

In tweets on December 18, GOP spokesperson Candice Giove had highlighted what seemed to be Parker’s inappropriate use of his parking placard. Parker responded with a shocking tweet, writing “Kill yourself!” to Giove. He later deleted the tweet but not before it was widely shared and memorialized, becoming the subject of a good deal of attention both on social media and in news reports.

The incident sparked a quick backlash against Parker, who has a history of losing his temper and getting in trouble for it. Elected officials, including those within his party, were quick to condemn his flippant remark about suicide. And many also raised the underlying question of whether he was among the public officials, elected and not, that have been abusing the parking privileges they receive as a perk of the job, which has become a broader issue in New York City in recent years.

Parker later expressed some contrition. "I sincerely apologize," he tweeted. "I used a poor choice of words. Suicide is a serious thing and and (sic) should not be made light of." But he continued to criticize Giove on Twitter and elsewhere, calling her “an internet troll” in an interview with the New York Daily News. In a statement at the time, which was between the elections where Democrats flipped the Senate and their official ascent to control of the upper chamber, now-Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said, “I was disappointed in Senator Parker’s tweet. Suicide is a serious issue and should not be joked about in this manner. I am glad that he has apologized.”

But that may be the end of it. Stewart-Cousins’ office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on whether Parker would face any formal action for his behavior. The incident is not being probed by the Senate’s Committee on Ethics and Internal Governance, chaired by Senator Alessandra Biaggi, who has promised to reinvigorate what has been a dormant committee despite constant ethical lapses among state officials. And Parker himself told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview that the matter was “handled internally.”

In response, Senate GOP spokesperson Scott Reif had harsh words for the Senate majority. “Senator Parker tells a young female staffer to go kill herself and the Democrats don’t give him so much as a slap on the wrist?,” Reif said in an email to Gotham Gazette. “Punish him for his inappropriate rhetoric. Punish him for violating the parking placard rules. But don’t just bury your head in the sand. Despite their talk, it looks like the new Democratic Majority doesn’t really care about ethics after all.”

Parker, in the phone interview, said he’d learned his lesson. “The rules have been reinforced to me and I will continue to abide by the rules,” he said. “We’ve moved on. We’re passing legislation.”

But he refused to address whether he had improperly used his parking placard. “It’s a tempest in a teacup, I’m not going down that road,” he said. And he would not reveal details of how the matter was resolved. “That’s a private conversation between me and the majority leader,” he said.

There are several avenues for holding state legislators to account for their conduct in office. Besides the ethics committee, there are the oversight and enforcement bodies -- the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Legislative Ethics Commission -- charged with investigating and penalizing violations of Public Officers Law (though the law is written vaguely and may be hard to apply to Parker’s situation).

Biaggi’s committee is not taking up the issue. “The first priority for the ethics committee is to ensure there are clear standards of behavior and a clear means for dealing with alleged violations in a timely manner,” said David Neustadt, a spokesperson for Biaggi. “The first focus of the ethics committee is dealing with the issue of sexual harassment and ensuring that New York State is a leader in making sure everyone is safe at work.”

On the potential parking placard violation, Neustadt said, "It's up to the issuing authority to make sure that parking placard holders know and follow the rules. It's up to the police to issue parking tickets when placards are used inappropriately.”

It’s unclear if there have been any complaints filed with either JCOPE or the LEC, or if either body is looking into the incident. Such investigations are usually kept confidential under state law. “We can’t comment on anything that is or might be an investigative matter,” said Walter McClure, a JCOPE spokesperson.

Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, a group that advocates for government reform, transparency, and accountability, said Parker’s inappropriate comments and alleged placard misuse “ought to be looked at” by both the Senate and JCOPE.

“They should err on the side of acting formally, even for low-level infractions, because it sets a serious tone,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Senate Democrats Pursue No Formal Consequences for Parker After 'Kill yourself!' Tweet Sun, 27 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
As Session Starts, Legislators and Advocates Push Overhaul of State Ethics Enforcement https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8184-as-session-starts-legislators-and-advocates-push-overhaul-of-state-ethics-enforcement https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8184-as-session-starts-legislators-and-advocates-push-overhaul-of-state-ethics-enforcement comprehensive reform gov

(photo via the Governor's Office)


As the state Legislature returns to session on Wednesday with Democrats in control of both chambers for the first time in a decade, State Senator Liz Krueger of Manhattan and Assemblymember Robert Carroll from Brooklyn are set to introduce a resolution that would amend the state constitution, adding new provisions to prevent and combat public corruption.

The resolution, first introduced late in last year’s session, would add a new section on state government integrity to the state constitution and would consolidate two agencies that are currently charged with monitoring and tackling corruption -- the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and the Legislative Ethics Commission -- into a new New York State Commission on Government Integrity. The effort is aimed at dealing with a long-standing problem in New York state government that recently saw the leaders of both houses of the Legislature convicted of public corruption, along with many other legislators who were removed from or left office due to ethical issues over the course of decades.

“We think this is the way to create a truly independent ethics body,” Assemblymember Carroll said in a phone interview on Tuesday, shortly after a rally outside the State Senate chambers alongside Senator Krueger and a cohort of government reform advocates. One of the central criticisms of JCOPE, which was created in 2011, is that it is too closely tied to the governor and legislators to be effective, making it a limited deterrent and a weak enforcer.

The proposed resolution would have to be passed by the current Legislature and again by the next elected Legislature in the 2021-2022 session, after which it would be presented to voters as a ballot question for their approval. If successful during this session and in 2021, Carroll estimated that the new law could go into effect by January 2022.

It would create the new nine-member commission -- five of whom would be appointed by the judiciary; two appointments jointly by the governor, comptroller, and attorney general; and two by legislative conference leaders whose parties are the top-two voter getters in a previous gubernatorial election. The commission would be empowered to issue civil sanctions and censures against legislators, would be able to suspend, demote, or terminate a non-elected employee, and make referrals for criminal prosecution. It would also serve as an independent counsel to legislators and state employees seeking informal ethics advice that can later be used in their defense. Those who have served as political party officials, state employees or lobbyists within the previous three years would be barred from being appointed.

Though the proposal does not require Governor Andrew Cuomo’s support, Carroll hoped that it would receive it nonetheless. “I hope the governor sees this is a major ingredient in reforming our broken political system in Albany,” he said.

During the only general election debate against his Republican opponent Marc Molinaro, Cuomo had signalled support for reforming JCOPE. “Change begins with the thin edge of a wedge,” Cuomo said, using a phrase he has often employed, in this case to indicate that he was pleased to accomplish something on ethics reform, and can then use it to do more.

He added, “I believe we need more independence on JCOPE, I believe we need totally independent appointees and not necessarily representatives of both houses. I’d be open to a number of configurations, but they’d have to be independent.” In a statement on Tuesday, Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Cuomo, reiterated that stance, but stopped short of endorsing the Carroll-Krueger plan: “As the Governor has previously said, we are open to changes to the structure of ethics enforcement and we will review any proposals that are introduced.”

Both Carroll and Krueger, Democrats like Cuomo, argue that a constitutional amendment is essential, particularly with renewed attention in this last election cycle to the activities of JCOPE, headed by Seth Agata, a former Cuomo aide nominated by the governor and appointed as executive director by the agency's commissioners in similar fashion to his predecessors. The state agency, which monitors lobbying at the state level besides ethics violations, has been widely criticized as inefficient and overly vulnerable to political interference, while at the same time being entirely opaque to the public and lacking clear jurisdiction.

In particular, Krueger said the agency has failed to investigate incidents and allegations of sexual harassment, even when they are made widely known. For instance, in January 2018, then-State Senator and Independent Democratic Conference leader Jeff Klein was accused of forcible kissing a former staffer, Erica Vladimer, but JCOPE has yet to make clear whether it is investigating the claim and has not provided any information to either the public, press, or Vladimer in the year since since she spoke out. JCOPE officials have pushed back against such criticism, noting that divulging information about investigations is against the law. At a March 2018 meeting, Commission Chair Michael Rozen said the agency's silence does not indicate action or inaction. "No conclusions should be inferred by the Commission’s silence," he said.

The new agency, on the other hand, would have to establish a dedicated unit for sexual harassment investigations and would also have more expansive transparency provisions, being subject to the same Freedom of Information Law that currently applies to the executive branch (there are ongoing negotiations about extending FOIL to the Legislature).

Last year, JCOPE’s lack of transparency was put to the legal test. New York Republican party chair Ed Cox and Molinaro, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, sued the agency to force a vote on an investigation into Joe Percoco, the former top Cuomo aide who was convicted on federal corruption charges last year. During the trial, Percoco was found to have improperly used his executive chamber office while working on Cuomo’s campaign, but he was never investigated by JCOPE. On December 19, a state supreme court judge ruled that the agency must take a vote within 30 days and then inform the judge, though they were not ordered to release the details of the vote to the public.

“I don’t think that current model is working and I think we need to fix that...It’s just not designed to do its job,” Krueger said of JCOPE in a December interview. She and Carroll were joined at the state Capitol building on Tuesday by representatives of groups including Common Cause New York, Reinvent Albany, the League of Women Voters of the State of New York, the New York Public Interest Research Group, the New York City Bar Association, as well as a few legislators, such as Senator Jen Metzger and Assemblymembers Richard Gottfried and Carrie Woerner.

What remains unclear is whether the leaders of both legislative chambers will support the proposal. Requests for comment to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ offices went unanswered.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to clarify that Seth Agata was appointed by JCOPE commissioners, not the governor. It has also been updated to include public statements made by JCOPE chair Michael Rosen about why the agency does not comment on investigations. 

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As Session Starts, Legislators and Advocates Push Overhaul of State Ethics Enforcement Tue, 08 Jan 2019 05:00:00 +0000
‘It’s just not designed to do its job’: Will New York reform its state ethics agency? https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8141-it-s-just-not-designed-to-do-its-job-will-new-york-reform-its-state-ethics-agency https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/8141-it-s-just-not-designed-to-do-its-job-will-new-york-reform-its-state-ethics-agency ethics reform announc

Skelos, Cuomo & Silver in 2011 (photo via the Governor's office)


This year’s elections in New York saw the issues of public corruption and government ethics reform take centerstage in several campaigns. Insurgent Democratic candidates, some who succeeded and others who did not, challenged incumbent elected officials on their parts in the broken system of corruption prevention and ethics enforcement at the state level that has allowed -- some say encouraged -- rampant corruption and self-enrichment.

Much criticism has been levelled at the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, a relatively young agency with a lackluster record of keeping watch on wrongdoing in state government. Since the agency’s inception seven years ago, several sitting lawmakers have been indicted and convicted of public corruption. But in most, if not all, those cases, JCOPE seems to have sat idly by as other enforcement agencies eventually stepped in. JCOPE has brought enforcement actions for ethical violations against only two lawmakers in that time -- one in 2013 against former Assemblymember Vito Lopez and then in 2015 against former Assemblymember Dennis Gabryszak. The body does not appear to many as much of a deterrent or enforcer.

Now, with Democrats set to take full control of the state Legislature and legislative leaders signalling a renewed commitment to reform, there’s talk of altering, or even repealing and replacing JCOPE, with some reform-minded legislators eyeing their new opportunity and even some relevant campaign season words from Governor Andrew Cuomo about making the ethics body more independent. Among them are Assemblymember Tom Abinanti, who wants to reform the agency’s membership, and State Senator Liz Krueger, who has proposed eliminating JCOPE and creating an entirely new agency from scratch.

Good government advocates are pushing for a soup-to-nuts reimagining of ethics enforcement. At minimum, they say, there should be changes to how JCOPE commissioners are appointed and that the agency should be given more teeth. The best-case scenario? Do away with JCOPE entirely and replace it with an entity as close to completely independent of political interference as possible.

JCOPE was created in 2011 during Cuomo’s first term, after he came into office promising to wipe clean the rot that had infected state government. Part of a deal with a hesitant Legislature, the agency was charged with overseeing lobbying activities and ethics violations by members of the state Assembly and Senate, the executive branch, dozens of state agencies, and candidates for elected office. It’s composed of 14 commissioners who serve five-year terms -- six appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor, three appointed by the Assembly speaker, three appointed by the Senate majority leader, and one each appointed by the minority leaders in both legislative chambers. The governor also appoints the chair of JCOPE while its executive director is chosen by the commissioners.

To advocates, JCOPE’s structure is plainly at the root of its problems. “The fundamental problem is, if you don’t have independent enforcement of the law, it doesn’t matter how good the laws are,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “While that’s not a bumper sticker issue, it’s not the sexy ethics issue to talk about, it is the critical one. The cornerstone of effective ethics enforcement is the independence of the agency that deals with it.”

Advocates and reform-minded elected officials have argued for years that JCOPE commissioners cannot be expected to conduct robust investigations of the very institutions, entities, and individuals that appoint them. JCOPE’s current executive director Seth Agata, a former aide to Cuomo, was a particular target of that criticism during the election. Cuomo’s Republican opponent, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, repeatedly called on Agata to step down over having failed to adequately scrutinize the executive chamber, particularly after the corruption conviction of Joe Percoco, a former top aide to Cuomo, who was found to have used his executive chamber office while working on Cuomo’s first reelection campaign.

In their only debate of the race, even Cuomo conceded that he would prefer to see a more independent JCOPE. “I believe we need more independence on JCOPE, I believe we need totally independent appointees and not necessarily representatives of both houses [of the Legislature],” he said. “I’d be open to a number of configurations, but they’d have to be independent. I’d have the attorney general involved; I’d have the chief judge involved in appointing the members.”

As he often has, Cuomo indicated his belief that even getting the Legislature to agree to creating JCOPE was a significant lift, and he added that it provided an opportunity to push further, having cracked the door open.

In the Democratic attorney general primary race as well, Fordham Law professor and anti-corruption crusader Zephyr Teachout led the charge in calling for Agata’s resignation, inflamed in part by JCOPE’s investigation and subsequent clearing of Sam Hoyt, a former state economic development official who was accused of sexual harassment and assault by a woman who said he helped her obtain a job at the state DMV. Hoyt was previously a long-serving member of the Assembly and was also investigated for sexual harassment while in office, and was later disciplined for having an inappropriate relationship with an intern. He was recruited after that by the Cuomo administration.

Public Advocate Letitia James, who went on to win the attorney general seat, initially took a softer position on JCOPE but eventually too joined Teachout in calling for Agata to step down, as did Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who was also in the race. Former Verizon executive Leecia Eve, who worked with Agata in Cuomo’s administration, was the only Democratic attorney general candidate not to issue that demand but did say that JCOPE should be scrapped and a new agency created from the ground up.

[Read: Agenda 2019: High Hopes for Long-Awaited Reforms]

There have been bills introduced in the state Legislature that would accomplish these goals. Earlier this year, Assembly Member Tom Abinanti, a Democrat representing parts of Westchester County, proposed restrictions to JCOPE’s membership. His bill would prohibit an individual from serving on the commission if they had been a registered lobbyist, elected official, state officer or employee, or a legislative employee within the previous ten years. “We should ensure that no member of JCOPE is inclined to act preferentially for or prejudicially against any subject of a JCOPE inquiry,” Abinanti said in a phone interview.

Abinanti said he was open to the idea of potentially scrapping the agency but said his bill was a necessary half-measure in the absence of broader action. “My bill is a more practical approach that, so long as we have JCOPE, we have to make some reforms and we need to make sure that the members of JCOPE do not have any relationships with the people who might become the subjects of their inquiry,” he said.

The office of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment. Senate Democratic spokesperson Mike Murphy said, “There was much done by the previous majority in furtherance of Senate Republicans’ partisan agenda and we expect to reform those inequalities to create more fairness,” likely referring to the fact that the Senate Republicans will still maintain control of a majority of the chamber’s appointments to JCOPE even after Democrats take the majority.  

Good government advocates agree that, in the absence of a new independent agency, the Legislature should make fixes to JCOPE’s problems, which are many. Besides the perceived conflicts of interest in appointments, the agency is notoriously opaque to the public. It does not release the details of investigations or even say whether an investigation has been initiated or concluded, for which it was recently sued by New York State Republican Party Chair Ed Cox. Its bizarre rules also effectively allow three Republicans out of the 14 members to block a majority vote for an investigation to proceed into a state elected official, said Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany. The law mandates that the majority vote must include “at least two members appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor and enrolled in the individual's major political party, if he or she is enrolled in a major political party.”

“That’s probably the greatest flaw with JCOPE,” Camarda said. And, owing to how the original JCOPE law was written, both parties also retain the number of appointments they can make even if they are not in the majority in a legislative chamber.

“There’s tweaks and adjustments to the current structure or there’s scrap the whole thing and start over,” said Camarda. “The best practice is to start with a nominating pool from which elected officials choose and the candidates that are put into the nominating pool would be put there by an outside body like the City Bar Association or judges, people who are unaffiliated with the targets of ethics investigations.”

Senator Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, agrees with that sentiment and has proposed a state constitutional amendment to create that independent entity.

Krueger introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by Assembly Member Robert Carroll, a Brooklyn Democrat, at the tail end of the 2018 legislative session that would add a new article on state government integrity to the constitution. It would establish a New York State Commission on Government Integrity to take over the role currently played by JCOPE. The new commission would be made up of nine members -- two appointed jointly by the governor, attorney general and comptroller; five appointed by the state’s chief judge and the presiding justices of the appellate courts; and one each by legislative conference leaders of political parties that are the top-two vote getters in the previous gubernatorial election.

Pursuing a constitutional amendment would also remove Governor Cuomo from the process. Unlike a bill that he could choose to sign or veto, the amendment would have to be approved by both legislative chambers in two consecutive sessions and then be presented to voters as a ballot measure.

“So do I assume [the governor] wouldn’t like this? Yes, probably he wouldn’t like this,” said Krueger, who will be a powerful member of the incoming Senate majority. “He wrote the existing JCOPE language. I don’t think that current model is working and I think we need to fix that...It’s just not designed to do its job.”

Krueger plans on reintroducing her resolution in the upcoming legislative session in January, with a few changes, which her office shared with Gotham Gazette, after consulting with the state’s chief judge and attorney general’s office. The earlier version allowed the commission to remove a legislator from office but the new version does not give the body that authority. Another revision allows the commission to give informal advice, which can then be used by an individual as defense in any potential future investigation.

The bill hasn’t been discussed yet by Senate Democrats and Krueger said it isn’t on the list of priorities for the conference as it meets this week to prepare for January. But Krueger is particularly optimistic that the Legislature will be under added public pressure after this election to move ahead on ethics reforms, both preventative and in enforcement. “I always have said, never waste a good crisis in government,” she said, “and when people have serious doubts about the honesty and integrity of their government leaders, it is a serious problem for all of us.”

She continued, “We depend on federal prosecutors to come in and play gotcha with us to finally get anything done. I’m not opposed to federal prosecutors playing gotcha, I just think the state of New York ought to have a system in place that can self-police, that can investigate, that can find people innocent when wrongfully accused and direct those, where there are findings of bad behavior and guilt, that those people be referred to the appropriate people in criminal justice.”

Another area where JCOPE is thought to be unequipped is in examining allegations of sexual harassment, an issue brought into recent relief by the allegation of forcible kissing brought against Senator Jeff Klein by a former aide, Erica Vladimer. Not only is it unclear if JCOPE has the expertise to examine sexual harassment claims, but there is little transparency related to any investigation that may or may not be happening, nor clarity around whether an accuser is provided information about the status of an investigation.

JCOPE spokesperson Walter McClure declined to comment on the proposals put forward by Krueger and Abinanti. “Any decisions on changes to our enabling legislation or the laws that we have oversight over are up to the Legislature and the Executive,” he said in an email.

It’s unclear whether the governor will back these efforts. On government ethics reform he has a history of promising big but delivering small, something that has left critics wary. As Camarda noted, “The governor told the editorial board of the Daily News that he was going to put into place a database of [economic development] deals, which he could do via executive order or pass legislation. He has not done that.” He also cited Cuomo’s unfulfilled promise to restrict campaign contributions from vendors bidding on state contracts.

The governor also made promises to pursue campaign finance reforms, including closing the so-called LLC loophole, and has repeatedly emphasized banning outside income for legislators as a sweeping ethics solution, even when the corruption has touched his own inner circle, removed from the Legislature. He lauded the recent recommendations of a state panel that would give lawmakers a pay raise while severely curtailing the money they can make from outside sources. Cuomo has been less vocal, however, about the issues within his own administration as highlighted by the scandal-ridden Buffalo Billion economic development program.

The governor’s office also did not provide any concrete proposals for reforming JCOPE when asked for comment. Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for the governor, said in an email, “Governor Cuomo will continue to lead the fight on ethics reform to restore confidence in government, and we look forward to engaging with the new legislature to update and refine our laws and identify which new reforms will be most effective.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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‘It’s just not designed to do its job’: Will New York reform its state ethics agency? Wed, 12 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Stephanie Miner Diagnoses What’s Wrong with New York Politics https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7694-stephanie-miner-diagnoses-what-s-wrong-with-new-york-politics https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7694-stephanie-miner-diagnoses-what-s-wrong-with-new-york-politics stephanie miner podcast

Stephanie Miner (photo: Ben Max/Gotham Gazette)


She describes herself as a “romantic about government,” but former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner sees a lot wrong with how it is currently being practiced in New York.

“When I think about what motivates me to be in government, it’s making change and impacting public policy,” Miner said on a recent episode of the Max & Murphy podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits, adding her contention that “real people are suffering” because of poor public policy in transit, affordable housing, and infrastructure across the state.

Miner, a Democrat who was term-limited out of office as mayor of the state’s fifth biggest city at the end of last year, has for months explored the possibility of challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo in this year’s gubernatorial primary election. She spent the first semester of the year teaching at NYU’s Wagner School and meeting with people about her political future. Her resume also includes the fact that she was the first woman to be elected mayor of Syracuse and her time as the chair of the state Democratic Party, a position she earned in part because of support from Cuomo, who she subsequently had a major falling out with.

Time out of office has allowed her to “take a breath and look at where we are in our state and where we are in our country in terms of politics and government,” she said on the podcast. In the meantime, Miner is not mincing words about Cuomo and his leadership of the state.

“For me backroom dealings and politics as usual is not serving anybody,” she said on the podcast. “We have rampant corruption, everywhere we look in the state there are more and more news stories about trials, guilty pleas, guilty verdicts, more investigations, FBI’s executing search warrants, and yet you have the power establishment just being silent.”

She specifically referenced corruption scandals including the recent conviction of Cuomo’s former top aide Joseph Percoco, who was found guilty on multiple federal corruption charges in March, as well as the “Buffalo Billion” saga in which federal prosecutors allege a handful of people involved in Cuomo’s economic development project are guilty of bid-rigging. Some of those accused, including another former top aide and several major donors to Cuomo, are set to stand trial beginning in June.

She criticized Cuomo for saying he would be interviewing potential attorney general candidates in the aftermath of Eric Schneiderman’s resignation after allegations he physically assaulted four women, in an apparent effort to help decide who would become the Democratic nominee. “When you have Cuomo saying he’s going to quote, “interview candidates” for the attorney general vacancy spot, I think that is wrong and violates a bunch of standards in ethical practice…and that’s where we find ourselves in this state,” she said.

The mentality of officials, Miner said, with clear reference to Cuomo, is too often to “get the quick win, stand up and take credit for it and don’t think about what’s behind it because you’re not going to be around when everything falls apart.”

What’s really at the heart of the issue?

“I think elected officials are more interested in serving the needs and desires of vested special interests who give big campaign contributions,” Miner said. “It becomes very transactional and...as the number of people who actually vote grows smaller and smaller, it becomes this perfect cycle for elected officials: They are much more interested in getting reelected than they are at solving problems and getting reelected is much easier if you can raise a million dollars and you only have 2,000 voters who show up.”

Other problems she said are at the top of the list for the state include transit, income inequality, affordable housing, and failed economic development projects. She is also concerned for the future of jobs with the rise of technology replacing people in industries such as transport and hospitality.

Solving these problems is especially difficult in a “brittle” system that discourages a considered and forward-thinking discussion of issues, Miner said. “It’s not helpful to say there are only two sides…For example, I’m in favor of the $15 minimum wage but the fact that becomes like a buzz question, ‘where are you on minimum wage?’ it ignores this huge public policy challenge about automation and what that’s going to do to our economy. Whether or not you’re earning a $15 wage, it’s not going to matter if you can’t get a job.”

As for solutions, Miner wants to see both campaign finance and election reform, in order to remove the influence of big donors and give more access to the process to all New Yorkers. She wants to see closure of the infamous LLC loophole and changes such as early voting, automatic registration, and vote by mail.

But there’s a fundamental change in leadership need, she said -- New York needs people in power who are collaborative, who listen, who consider alternative viewpoints.

Miner said her professional relationship with the governor has been marred by conflict, with a key turning point being Miner’s 2013 op-ed in The New York Times, in which she criticized Cuomo for his plan to allow municipalities to reduce their current pension payments and make up for it in the future. She said she wrote the op-ed after being given the “runaround” and pressured by the party to “get onboard” with the Cuomo plan, despite believing the move was fiscally irresponsible, especially given municipal finance is a top issue for her.

“It became clear to me after that, that the governor and I had very different views on public policy and public policy disagreements. You’re always going to know why I disagree with you, and what those grounds are, and that was not something that was tolerated in Andrew Cuomo’s world,” she said.

The former Syracuse mayor will have to decide soon whether or not to enter the gubernatorial race, and she said during the May 15 podcast taping that part of that consideration involves the ideas she has, the team she will be able to put together, and her positioning to deliver positive change to the state.

“There are lots of different things that I find myself in a very good position to talk about,” she said, listing examples such as being mayor of a city facing significant poverty and income inequality and having her area be central to the corruption scandals plaguing the Cuomo administration.

Miner disagreed with the notion that it is basically too late to get into the race given that actor and activist Cynthia Nixon has already declared a challenge to Cuomo from the left and swooped up a number of endorsements.

Nixon’s presence in the raise is “beneficial for everyone,” Miner said, as it contributes to a “vibrant political dialogue.” But with less than four months until the September primaries, the clock is certainly ticking for Miner. Cuomo was just backed with 95 percent of the state committee vote at the party’s convention. In a brief email exchange on Monday, May 28, Miner indicated that nothing had materially changed in her thinking since the podcast discussion.

“The old rules of dates and times an how you put together a campaign no longer apply,” she said. “We are in uncharted waters and it is a tremendously turbulent time. People are hungry for change.”

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner]

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by Caitlin Bishop, Gotham Gazette
@caitybishop  @GothamGazette

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Stephanie Miner Diagnoses What’s Wrong with New York Politics Mon, 28 May 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo's 2018 State of the State 'Reform' Agenda Largely Repeats Past Proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7403-cuomo-s-2018-state-of-the-state-reform-agenda-largely-repeats-past-proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7403-cuomo-s-2018-state-of-the-state-reform-agenda-largely-repeats-past-proposals Cuomo State of the State reforms

Gov. Cuomo at his 2018 State of the State (photo: Philip Kamrass/Governor's Office)


During his 2018 State of the State speech on Wednesday in Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo spent little time on government ethics reform, but did address at somewhat greater length his proposals to increase access to the ballot box and change state campaign finance law.

In sum, the “reform” portion of Cuomo’s remarks were relatively brief, though the governor did expand more on his proposals to change voting, campaign financing, political advertising, and the jobs of legislators in the accompanying 374-page policy book that details his 2018 agenda. Many of these proposals are repeated from prior years. Cuomo has not prioritized things like early voting or a public campaign finance system, so they have not become law in New York.

Known for his ability to bend the Legislature to his will for policy items he puts his weight behind -- like marriage equality or a $15 minimum wage program -- Cuomo has overseen some incremental ethics reforms but little by way of seismic shifts to prevent corruption or increase election participation. He has also been unwilling to go along with contracting reform that is aimed at bringing more oversight and transparency to his own economic development programming.

The governor’s speech came just ahead of a handful of corruption trials that will occur this year, including some of his top aides and donors who are accused of engaging in major bid-rigging and kickback schemes dealing with the governor’s signature economic development programs. Two former legislative leaders will also be retried for public corruption after their recent convictions were overturned due to a new Supreme Court ruling.

In an hour-and-a-half speech on Wednesday, government ethics was sandwiched briefly between Cuomo’s discussion of doing more to help mentally ill homeless people and focusing on “new problems” facing the state, like the “rise in terrorism,” climate change, the opioid epidemic, and more. Cuomo devoted just one brief segment to the topic, and in doing so nodded to legislators’ disinterest in further reform.

“With all we have to do as a government, it is more important than ever that we have the public's trust,” Cuomo said. “I know the Legislature feels that we have done much on ethics reform and they are right. I know they feel that whatever we do, it will never be enough in this political atmosphere and they may be right, but we must do more anyway. The single best ethics reform is to ban outside income, remove any possibility for conflict and let legislators say 'I work for the public. Period. And there are no possible conflicts presented.’”

The Democratic governor, now in the final year of his second term and seeking a third, has proposed banning outside income for legislators before, along with other reforms that he did not name Wednesday but are again in his policy book, like term limits. These and campaign finance reforms have mostly gone nowhere in the Legislature, especially the Republican-controlled state Senate, though lawmakers would like their first salary increase since 1999. Cuomo is in favor of a pay raise for legislators, but in exchange for strict limits on outside income and other reforms.

In moving toward “new” challenges, Cuomo referenced previously announced pieces of his larger “Democracy Agenda,” including more transparency for online political advertisements. Action must be taken, he said, to address “the distortion and manipulation of our elections by big donors, foreign money and social media advertising and the alienation of our citizens.”

Noting that “social media has revolutionized our elections,” Cuomo said that the “freedom of the internet” must be respected, but that laws must be followed. “Foreign countries like Russia and big anonymous donors cannot jeopardize our democracy. Social media must disclose who or what pays for political advertising because sunlight is still the best disinfectant.”

“Disclosure must apply to social media the same way that it applies to a newspaper ad or a TV ad or a radio ad,” Cuomo said. “Anything else is a scam and a perversion of the law and an affront to democracy. Let's stop this abuse, and while Washington talks about it and dithers, let New York lead the way and address this challenge and let's do it this session.”

Cuomo also said that in “this time of citizen alienation and outrage, the best thing we can do is let people know that their voice is heard, that they matter and that they can and they should vote. And we should make voting easier, not harder, with same-day registration, no-fault absentee ballots, and early voting.”

He said that New York could “increase trust” through campaign finance reforms like closing the infamous LLC loophole, which allows virtually unlimited campaign donations from people and businesses through multiple limited liability companies (which Cuomo has benefited mightily from), and public financing of electoral campaigns. Both are ideas Cuomo has said he supports for years but has not been able to see passed through the Legislature. A 2014 pilot public campaign financing program that was passed but only applied to the comptroller race fizzled almost immediately.

Cuomo, king of the mega-donors, as The New York Times recently pointed out, says in his policy book that “candidates are incentivized to focus on large donations over small ones.” New York does have excessively high individual donation limits, at more than $65,000 for gubernatorial candidates. Cuomo writes that the only way to fix the situation is to offer matching funds for smaller donations, like the New York City system does.

The governor is also calling for laws mandating financial disclosures by local elected officials, which would institute requirements on officials not in state government, but municipal and county offices around the state, where there are not uniform requirements to create more transparency around potential conflicts of interest.

Cuomo is also again calling for extending the state’s Freedom of Information Law to the Legislature, which is not currently subject. He also calls for FOIL and the open meetings law to apply to state ethics monitors the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and the Legislative Ethics Commission.

The governor is again calling for extending the power of the state Inspector General to nonprofits affiliated with the SUNY and CUNY systems, including their contracting processes. This reform relates to some of the alleged bid-rigging in Cuomo’s economic development programs. While Cuomo is open to the IG having more power, he continues to resist re-establishing the state Comptroller’s pre-clearance of contracts procured through SUNY-affiliated nonprofits.

On that same note, Cuomo is also again proposing the creation of a Chief Procurement Officer in order to “oversee the integrity” of contracting processes. Critics have called this potential position duplicative given the role of the Comptroller. The governor’s policy book notes, “despite existing legal safeguards, conflicts of interest and unlawful conduct may jeopardize the impartiality and objectivity of the current procurement process. This risk is further heightened by the significant amount of dollars spent by state and local public agencies, which exceeds tens of billions of dollars annually.”

Cuomo is also proposing legislation toward eventually creating a uniform contract-tracking system among various state entities that each currently use their own.

There is no indication of a new appetite for the voting, ethics, and campaign finance reforms that Cuomo has proposed before, and it is unclear if there will be support for some of the new proposals, like more transparency around digital political advertisements. Several of the proposals would likely pass if the state Senate flips to Democrats, which could occur at some point later this year. The governor must first call a special election for the 11 vacancies in the Legislature, two of which are in the Senate.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Cuomo's 2018 State of the State 'Reform' Agenda Largely Repeats Past Proposals Wed, 03 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Dissecting Mayor De Blasio's Record As He Seeks Reelection https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7221-dissecting-mayor-de-blasio-s-record-as-he-seeks-reelection Mayor de Blasio Chirlane McCray City Hall Reelection Parade

Mayor Bill de Blasio & First Lady Chirlane McCray (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


As Mayor Bill de Blasio, a first-term Democrat, seeks reelection this fall, a close examination of his record is essential. De Blasio came into power promising to address inequlality in a variety of forms, including income, educational, policing, racial, and opportunity inequities he identified during his 2013 campaign. In this year's election de Blasio is running in part on his record, which is headlined by the implementation of his campaign promise to provide universal pre-kindergarten for the city's four-year-olds. But, there is much more to the mayor's record than UPK, which has clearly been his biggest success.

In this series, Gotham Gazette, with election coverage partners City Limits and WNYC radio, examines de Blasio's record on a variety of important issues. While this is not completely exhaustive, it should be helpful to voters and others seeking to evaluate de Blasio this fall. With our partners, Gotham Gazette will release articles and audio pieces on the following aspects of de Blasio's record -- those already published are linked below.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 7.

More to read/view/hear:

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Dissecting Mayor De Blasio's Record As He Seeks Reelection Wed, 01 Nov 2017 23:26:00 +0000