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Ethics board leak questioned

Ethics board leak questioned

The mystery of how the fiercely private New York ethics board allowed one of its closed-door meeting

The mystery of how the fiercely private New York ethics board allowed one of its closed-door meetings to leak onto the Internet has drawn calls for an investigation into the board itself.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics blamed the recent embarrassing transmission during a closed executive session on an unspecified technical issue. But critics are calling for an independent investigation based on the powerful board’s own rules to determine if the leak, which could carry a misdemeanor charge, was an intentional political hit on the Assembly.

“There were technical issues that the commission was made aware of and it’s since been rectified,” said John Milgrim, spokesman for board. He refused to say if an investigation was made, if a person triggered the technical malfunction or if there was any indication the transmission was intentional.

“That’s the answer, that’s the response,” Milgrim said.

Former commission member Ravi Batra resigned in September to protest what he saw as a lack of independence from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Most of the commission’s top staffers had worked for Cuomo and he appointed the chairwoman. Batra had urged the panel to investigate a gambling interest that donated $2 million to a lobbying group, the Committee to Save New York, which promotes Cuomo and his policies, as Cuomo was contemplating expanding casinos statewide.

“There was a breach of confidentiality — accidental, technical or intentional political hit,” Batra told The Associated Press of the Jan. 29 event. “In any event, there must be an independent investigation of the cause.”

Batra said the leak “was a trifecta: reputation-damaging, confirming who is being investigated, and worst of all, one or more commissioners expressing the view that ‘recusal,’ already conflict-based, be unethically done without disclosure of the conflict.”

The leak, less than five minutes long during an executive session on Jan. 29, revealed a probe into the Assembly and identified a top aide.

The commission has great power to regulate ethics and lobbying and is unusually vigilant about leaks. Its bylaws threaten commissioners with a misdemeanor if they release information deemed confidential and exempt itself from state laws that require most meetings and most records to be public. Some commissioners have sought investigations of leaks to reporters.

During the transmission, a commissioner appointed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is heard praising one of Silver’s top aides, noting the aide had “high ethical standards.” The commissioner, law professor and ethicist Ellen Yaroshefsky, said she wouldn’t recuse herself from a case in which the aide is apparently involved.

One commissioner says she shouldn’t have given her opinion on the ethics of a state official during an apparent investigation. The leader of the meeting said it was up to Yaroshefsky, not the commission, to decide if she should recuse herself. An unidentified commissioner cautions against Yaroshefsky’s full disclosure.

“If we are not going to recuse ourselves, the less said the better,” the commissioner said.

“Point well taken,” the discussion leader said.

The issue appears to have involved an investigation of sexual harassment accusations against Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez and a private $103,000 settlement using taxpayer money that was approved by Silver and reviewed by staff of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, all Democrats.

“It’s my experience in government that when someone says it’s a technical issue, someone screwed up,” said David Grandeau, an attorney and former executive director of the state Lobbying Commission who is a fierce critic of the ethics commission. “It’s possible someone did it on purpose, right?”

Yaroshefsky had no immediate comment. In September, she said she was frustrated to “personally be muzzled” by the commission in the face of what she said were inaccurate press leaks.

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