When it comes to ethics and corruption in New York state government, you know that those with any say will do everything they can to either weaken oversight or parlay the membership to their favor.
Those are the dangers facing the new Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (CELG), which is set next month to replace the highly partisan and largely ineffective state government ethics panel, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).
The idea behind replacing JCOPE with a new body was to make it more independent and less partisan.
Under JCOPE, for instance, too many members were appointed either by the governor or the Legislature, who selected those members from friends and supporters.
The new 11-member ethics panel also has a full share of government appointees. But in this case, all must be approved by a panel of 15 law school deans from around the state. That should help ensure an independent and ethical panel. At least in theory.
So this new panel is subject to the same challenges that the old one was in terms of finding an independent group of overseers.
Corruption and unethical conduct affects New Yorkers in multiple ways. Unethical conduct affects the awarding of lucrative state contracts, which might be steered toward incompetent or unscrupulous businesses – affecting job creation and tax revenue for localities. Unethical conduct also can affect legislation that could benefit someone close to an elected official at the expense of one business, an entire industry and the taxpayers.
So it’s vital that in appointing the new members to this new ethics panel, state officials get it right.
Government watchdog groups, including the League of Women Voters, Reinvent Albany and NYPIRG have grown wary of hanky-panky in appointments to such panels.
So this week, leaders of eight such groups submitted a series of principles that appointers should follow in filling the new panel.
The groups are calling for appointments to only include “independent and well-qualified people” who are evaluated based on their “prior experience, expertise, character and independence” – not because of their current positions or relationships. That’s already being tested by one JCOPE commissioner, who is seeking to be appointed to the new panel and is apparently considering litigation should he be excluded.
Among the other principles the groups are seeking are that appointees’ spouses/partners and children have gone at least three years without having been a lobbyist, state contractor, major campaign contributor, state or local official or a state or legislative employee or officer.
The groups also want the panel to select a group that represents wide racial, ethnic, gender and geographic diversity.
None of these principles are unreasonable or unreachable. But in New York, politics often overrides principles.
For this new ethics panel to work, principles, independence and ethics must win out.