Published in
The Empire

How the Cuomo ethics panel works

By Yasmeen Khan

Couresy of the Governor's office.

The members of New York's new ethics panel, named Monday by Governor Andrew Cuomo, reported for their first day of work on Tuesday. The 14-member Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, replaces the state's Commission on Public Integrity which officially went out of business more than three months ago (critics say that panel, created by Eliot Spitzer in 2007, was too tightly controlled by the governor).

Governor Cuomo touts JCOPE as "an independent monitor that will aggressively investigate corruption and help maintain integrity in state government." Here's a quick overhead view on how JCOPE will work:

  • It has the power to investigate both the executive and legislative branches, including elected officials, their employees and lobbyists. It also has the power to subpoena witnesses to testify.
  • The panel can impose penalties on the governor and executive branch employees.
  • JCOPE does not have the power to penalize lawmakers. That falls under the jurisdiction of the Legislative Ethics Commission.
  • Appointees to the commission have fixed, five-year terms.
  • There will be a review of JCOPE in 2015 to see what's working and what's not.

A number of good government groups agree that the panel, created under the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011, has the potential to take a more aggressive approach than its predecessor because of three key changes:

  • No single elected official controls the majority of appointees. The governor has the authority to appoint six members, at least three of whom must be from the major political party that differs from the governor. The Senate Majority Leader and the Assembly Speaker each appoint three members. The minority leaders of both chambers each appoint one member.
  • There are new disclosure requirements. The public will be able to view online financial disclosure statements filed to JCOPE by elected officials. Paperwork includes more precise disclosure of financial information and the reporting of clients and customers with whom elected officials conduct business, receive grants and contracts, and seek legislation or resolutions.
  • A unitary panel will oversee the executive and legislative. That means that, for the first time, a single body will oversee elected officials, employees and lobbyists, and lawmakers will not be policing themselves.

"In terms of whether a commission is going to be more or less effective, in the end it really is largely dependent on the people who are on the commission, and certainly I'm encouraged by the people who have been appointed," said Lawrence Norden, acting director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "There's a lot of experience there, and so there's reason to be optimistic."

Norden also said he is pleased that the Public Integrity Reform Act calls for a review of JCOPE in 2015. "I'm hopeful that we're not going to see an entire rewriting of who is overseeing Albany," he said.