The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) was Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s answer to state government’s ineffectual ethics system, especially in the Legislature, where lawmakers were responsible for investigating and passing judgment on themselves — and, not surprisingly, didn’t do either.
The Vito Lopez case, in which JCOPE investigated and issued a damning report about sexual harassment of his staff by the veteran assemblyman, as well as the Assembly’s handling of the matter, shows that the new panel can work. But it’s also a reminder that changes are needed to make it work better.
The two main areas in need of improvement are voting procedures and transparency. JCOPE has 14 members — six appointed by the governor (three of whom must be from a different political party), three each by the Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker, and one each by the Senate and Assembly minority leaders.
That should protect against excessive partisanship in the investigative process and findings. The trouble comes with deciding when to pursue investigations. Under current voting rules, as few as three members from the same party and branch can block a full investigation. And under current disclosure rules, no outsiders would know it.
Citizens Union, a longtime supporter of strong ethics legislation, has proposed a couple of sensible and necessary changes. One is to allow a supermajority — nine of the 14 members — to approve an investigation or issue a report when JCOPE has found a substantial basis for concluding ethical violations have occurred.
The other would increase transparency in this and other matters. If the voting procedure remains the same, Citizens Union proposes making public the vote count — but not the subject — for a minority-blocked investigation within seven days of the vote.
Citizens Union recommends the same timetable for disclosing the names of those — like Lopez — who are the subject of JCOPE reports.
One lingering question is why, if JCOPE was so critical of the Assembly’s handling of the matter, it didn’t find ethical violations for anyone else. Did it investigate? Did it even try? More transparency would help.