Ethics oversight in Albany has been broken for decades, and former Gov. Andrew Cuomo was one of the chief reasons that problem worsened in recent years. In 2011, the former governor created the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) to restore public trust in government and increase oversight of state ethics laws.
But over the course of the past 10 years, JCOPE has done nothing to inspire confidence. The makeup of the Commission is so heavily tilted toward the governor’s advantage (six of its 14 commissioners were Cuomo appointees), that time and again the ethics panel appeared to do Cuomo’s bidding, rather than act as a true oversight panel. As early as 2013, Assembly Minority members had proposed legislation to replace JCOPE with an independent ethics watchdog.
However, with Cuomo’s resignation amid multiple scandals, an opportunity finally presented itself to get this right. Unfortunately, when Gov. Kathy Hochul had the chance to initiate positive changes to the embattled ethics agency, she woefully missed the mark.
Earlier this week, Gov. Hochul picked James Dering, a former Cuomo appointee, to serve as acting chairman of JCOPE. Her decision to reappoint Dering was especially curious because he abruptly stepped down just weeks ago from the oft-maligned “ethics watchdog.” Further, Hochul barely had time to vet his credentials. In fact, when pressed on her decision, she acknowledged “proper vetting” will be done with the next appointment.
As if doubling-down on a former Cuomo ethics commissioner wasn’t bad enough, DURING the following JCOPE meeting, both of Gov. Hochul’s new appointments (Dering and former Suffolk County Administrative Judge Randall Hinrichs) voted to allow Andrew Cuomo to keep the $5.1 million he earned from his COVID book, the writing of which has been investigated for improper use of state resources.
At a time when the public’s trust in its government has been repeatedly tested by a governor’s office that lacked integrity, Gov. Hochul needed to do better. JCOPE has a responsibility to protect public interest and root out corruptive behavior. That was never its priority under the former governor, and this week’s actions indicate more of the status quo rather than a needed commitment to change.
New Yorkers deserve a government that is fair, transparent and accountable, and installing an independent ethics commission that is actually free of the influence of the executive is certainly one way to go about ensuring those characteristics. But that doesn’t work if the people in charge do not make a concerted effort to guarantee independence and objectivity.
If you have any questions or comments on this or any other state issue, or if you would like to be added to my mailing list or receive my newsletter, please contact my office. My office can be reached by mail at 19 Canalview Mall, Fulton, NY 13069 and by email at email@example.com.