Three nominees from top state officials for the state’s new ethics commission were rejected by a review committee, and the public should have a right to know why.
But it doesn’t. Under New York’s new, improved, and oh-so-much-more-transparent ethics regime, it’s a backroom secret.
Mark that down as yet another flaw in the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government, Gov. Kathy Hochul and the Legislature’s answer to the former travesty known as the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
It’s as if state officials just can’t help themselves when it comes to injecting unnecessary opacity or potential for corruption into whatever ethics process they create. JCOPE, conceived in 2011 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators, was marred by inordinate gubernatorial control, an appointment process that let the governor and legislative leaders choose who sat on a commission that was supposed to be a watchdog over the government the same officials ran, and rules that enabled partisan factions on the board to scuttle investigations, even without a majority of votes. And the rules cloaked in secrecy so much of what JCOPE did that the public couldn’t observe political games and favors at work.
In the case of the new Commission on Ethics and Lobbying, Governor Hochul and lawmakers, to their credit, fixed some of the imbalance in the governor’s power. They also added a layer of independence in the appointment process by creating a panel to review nominees, made up of the deans of the state’s 15 accredited law schools. And to the review committee’s credit, perhaps, it rejected three of the nominees so far.
But the new commission will still be made up of appointees of top government officials, and the review panel, it’s clear, is looking for candidates who would not air the commission’s disagreements in public or talk freely to the press. And the appointment process is even less transparent than that of JCOPE, whose nominees had to be confirmed by the state Senate in a public vote. The new review committee is releasing only letters of acceptance of nominees, which contain minimal information; as the Times Union’s Chris Bragg reports, it refused a Freedom of Information request to release letters of rejection. Assembly Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt’s office did release Gary Lavine’s rejection letter, but two Democrats whose nominees were rejected, Attorney General Letitia James and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, would not do so.
Why not, the public is left to wonder: to spare the nominees any embarrassment – or perhaps themselves? Was there an issue with the quality of Ms. James’ and Mr. Heastie’s nominees? Conflicts of interest? Philosophies of ethics or transparency that went counter to the review committee’s views?
This isn’t a matter of idle curiosity. New Yorkers are entitled to know not just when their elected officials get things right, but when they get them wrong – especially when it comes to something as essential to good government as their choice for an ethics commission.