While doing our homework on New York’s Joint Committee in Public Ethics, we stumbled on the following headlines:
- “More silence from JCOPE,” Albany Times-Union, Oct. 20, 2015
- “JCOPE’s unethical tactic,” Albany Times Union, Nov. 30, 2017
And our favorite:
- “Worthless watchdog: Albany’s JCOPE can’t cope,” New York Daily News, Feb. 27, 2018
We weren’t particularly surprised. Any attempted reforms from good government groups in Albany almost always include proposals to make the state’s ethics committee more independent by eliminating its political appointments.
Here is how it stands now.
The committee is made up of 14 members serving five-year terms with three appointed by the president of the Senate, three by the speaker of the Assembly, one by the minority leader of the Senate, one by the minority leader of the Assembly and six by the governor and lieutenant governor. The committee’s chairperson is also selected by the governor. The commission appoints the executive director.
Former Essex County District Attorney Julia Garcia was appointed to JCOPE last year by Speaker Carl Heastie.
Forgive our cynicism if we see politics as the prevalent force on this committee.
JCOPE is the brainchild of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and in its eight years of existence it has found misconduct with just two politicians, with former Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos both escaping its scrutiny.
How is that even possible?
Any cleanup in Albany has almost invariably come from federal prosecutors.
If you know how the committee operates, it all makes sense.
Consider that its current executive director, Seth Agata, is a former counsel to Gov. Cuomo. As it turns out, all the past executive directors have worked for the governor. Our problem is that over the past year, there have been some people very close to the governor who have been convicted of corruption crimes.
JCOPE operates under rules that any two of the governor’s appointees can veto an investigation or any finding that there has been a violation. Any three of the appointees from the legislative leaders can also derail an investigation.
This is a committee that seems to be more about finding a way not to do something than holding politicians accountable.
JCOPE’s reputation is so bad that State Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan has proposed a constitutional amendment to establish an independent commission to review ethics complaints. She has 25 co-sponsors for the legislation so far, including local Sen. Daphne Jordan and four other Republicans.
Former gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro once said JCOPE was a “direct political appendage of Andrew Cuomo.”
Gov. Cuomo’s Democratic primary opponent last year, Cynthia Nixon, called it “a puppet body controlled by the governor.”
They were being kind.
What got our attention about JCOPE was its lack of recent action.
According to the Times-Union, the ethics group met in executive session last month on whether to investigate Joseph Percoco, a former top aide of Gov. Cuomo’s who was recently convicted of accepting more than $300,000 in exchange for government favors. There are concerns that Percoco also improperly used state resources while managing Gov. Cuomo’s re-election campaign in 2014.
Despite that vote by the committee a month ago, there has been no indication that JCOPE is going forward with an investigation.
The math looks simple to us. One plus one equals two votes from Cuomo appointees on the committee and no investigation.
What is clear is that JCOPE continues to be a joke when it comes to monitoring ethics issues in state government.
We wish Sen. Krueger luck with her legislation for a constitutional amendment because it is desperately needed and long overdue.