Ethics Panel Out of Business in New York

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The ethics panel for New York state is going out of business — at least until a new commission signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier this month can get up and running.

Critics say the now-defunct Commission on Public Integrity was flawed from its inception, but the commission defends its track record.

One of the side effects of the new ethics law signed by Cuomo is that the old policing body, the Commission on Public Integrity, is now functionally out of business. 

Until appointees to the new Joint Commission on Public Ethics are named and the board meets, no one will be authorized to police corruption by elected officials in New York.

A spokesman for the old Commission on Public Integrity, Walter Ayres, said that until then, the commission's powers are severely curtailed.

“We can no longer conduct investigations, hold hearings or give advice to state employees who have questions about the law," said Ayres, who noted the commission can still collect lobbying information, financial disclosure forms.

The new panel does not have to meet until December 13, leaving potentially a three month gap with no official board in place.

But the commission, as well as reform advocates who back the change, say the transition is not going to be a time of lawlessness for New York’s politicians.

Ayres, whose job — along with those of 11 other staffers, ends September 7 — said that if any charges of wrongdoing come to the attention of the commission, they can at least record the complaint.

“If we come across somebody who has violated the law, we can make a note and pass it off to the new commission when they begin,” Ayres said.

Dick Dadey, with Citizens Union, one of several government reform groups that backs the new ethics law, said the lag between the two commissions should not be too much of a worry.

"Any current or active investigation will be frozen and then picked back up by the ethics panel that’s being formed," said Dadey, who noted he remains concerned that if any misconduct occurs during the transition period it might never be reported and never be pursued.

The now-defunct Commission on Public Integrity was created in 2007, just weeks after Governor Eliot Spitzer took office. Dadey said critics said the commission, with the majority of appointments from the executive branch, was too tightly controlled by the governor.

“It was structurally unsound,” said Dadey, who noted the imbalance manifested in what became known as the Troopergate scandal. 

Aides to Spitzer were accused of re-creating police travel records to discredit a political enemy, then-Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno.

A state Inspector General’s report said the commission used a back channel to leak information on the investigation to an aide to Spitzer. The commission’s executive director was forced to resign.

Ayres admitted the commission came into existence just as Troopergate hit — the first of a number of successive scandals — and ended up in the middle of it all.

“That was like the 500-year flood,” said Ayres. “We faced a lot of criticism from those who thought we were too strict and from those who thought we did go far enough."

In the end, the commission said Spitzer’s former press secretary misused the resources of the State Police, but it never implicated the governor.

The commission did pursue charges against Spitzer’s successor, Governor David Paterson, that he had improperly received free tickets to a Yankees World Series game. Paterson was fined over $60,000.

“We were the first agency to ever charge a sitting governor with violating the law,” Ayres said.

Dadey, with Citizens Union, said the new Joint Commission on Public Ethics will be an improvement over previous commissions because it will also have the power to investigate the legislature, as well as oversight over all lobbying activities.

“It will be much easier to see the connections that exist,” Dadey said. “And be able to connect the dots far more easily.”

The legislature retains the power, though to determine what, if any, punishment is meted out to lawmakers found guilty by the commission of wrongdoing.

But Dadey said with more sets of eyes on the legislature, it will be far more difficult in the future for leaders of the legislature to avoid acting when there’s ethical misconduct.