New York’s broken ethics

Albany Times Union via AP

With the state Senate set to hold a hearing Monday on New York’s ethics oversight and enforcement system, we can describe it with one word: corrupt.

New Yorkers have witnessed in recent years a total breakdown of accountability at the highest levels of government, and a corruption of the very mechanisms meant to enforce ethics rules. The two most prominent watchdogs — the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Office of the Inspector General — are so obviously compromised they have become part of the problem.

And yes, we have said this over and over and over again. We are frustrated and sick of it, as we suspect most New Yorkers are. And every good government advocate. And every honest, idealistic legislator and public servant. JCOPE is sham and an embarrassment. The Inspector General’s office is a farce.

JCOPE — the brainchild, remember, of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — long ago ceased to be a credible ethics enforcer. Ineffectiveness was baked into its structure, with members appointed by the governor and lawmakers — the very people JCOPE is supposed to keep an eye on. Partisan blocs can prevent investigations of allies even when they’re in the minority. The governor’s control of the commission assures it would never investigate anything he doesn’t want it to — just as we saw play out when this epically incurious commission failed to investigate how one of the governor’s closest aides, Joseph Percoco, did political work at his desk in the governor’s office when he was supposed to be on leave working on the governor’s campaign. Work that would later end up getting Mr. Percoco convicted of corruption. Right under the noses of the governor and executive staff.

As for the Inspector General, its credibility was already compromised when it supposedly investigated, in 2019, a leak to the governor from within JCOPE about how commissioners voted on whether to investigate Mr. Percoco. Mr. Cuomo is said to have called Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to complain about how Mr. Heastie’s appointees voted. Leaking confidential JCOPE information is a misdemeanor. Yet the Inspector General said it couldn’t confirm that had happened. Little wonder: It didn’t interview either Mr. Cuomo or Mr. Heastie.

Following that episode of incompetence or corruption, the Inspector General’s office destroyed whatever credibility it might have had left this past week when it rejected a call by three Republican JCOPE commissioners to reopen the investigation following public acknowledgment by Mr. Heastie that the governor did in fact call him about the commission vote. The Inspector General stood by its work, overseen by then-Deputy Inspector General Spencer Freedman, who, like so many other people in such sensitive positions, previously worked for Mr. Cuomo.

The politically incestuous nature of JCOPE and the Inspector General calls their objectivity and integrity into question, and their performance has done nothing to assuage any doubts. This doesn’t serve the public, and it doesn’t serve the public officials whom these entities oversee. Perhaps Mr. Cuomo would not be so mired in scandals and threatened with impeachment if he knew that real state watchdogs were keeping an eye on him and his administration.

We’ve said it before, and we will say it again: Scrap JCOPE, and create a truly independent entity. Wrap the Inspector General into the new body while you’re at it. Change the state constitution if necessary to make it happen. New York cannot hope to root out corruption with such a blatantly corrupt system.