It didn’t take long for the flaws inherent in the creation of the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics to become glaringly obvious.
As we editorialized when the law was created last June, the big problem with JCOPE is that its members are all appointed by the people it was designed to keep an eye on: Six are tapped by the governor, three each by the legislative leaders and one each by the minority leaders. And commission rules make it all too easy for any of the Big Three to block an investigation.
So when the New York Times reported last week that JCOPE — which, in another fatal flaw, must conduct meetings in secret and needn’t report on their results — would investigate sexual harassment allegations against Assemblyman Vito Lopez, but not the payment of $103,000 to his alleged victims that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver secretly approved in July, it looked like the fix was in.
Fortunately, on Friday state Supreme Court Justice Fern Fisher had the good sense to appoint a special prosecutor — Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan — to probe all aspects of the case, not just those involving Lopez. We hope that in addition to Silver’s role, Donovan looks into what representatives of state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli knew about the secret settlement and when. (The Times reported Monday that both were consulted by the Assembly counsel before the settlement was reached.)
Trying to keep himself above the fray, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has threatened to trump Donovan’s probe with one of his own — “independent” of course — but if he or one of his people were to do the commissioning, true independence would be impossible.
The top-secret, insiders-only JCOPE model is a failure. Though the commission has now agreed to make the results of its secret meetings public, its intentionally vague announcement Monday about broadening the scope of its investigation, makes clear that it’s still trying to hide state government’s dirty laundry from public view.