New ethics commission fails to fix predecessor’s fatal flaws
Another day, another New York politician embroiled in a corruption scandal. Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, the former state senator whom Gov. Kathy Hochul appointed to the second-highest position in New York, allegedly accepted illegal campaign money from a real estate developer in exchange for state funds, before reportedly attempting to cover it up on his campaign finance reports. He was indicted on bribery and fraud charges and resigned on Tuesday.
Federal indictments of state officials should be shocking to New Yorkers, or at least a bit stomach-churning. But exposure therapy diminishes strong reactions, and Benjamin could simply be the latest in a long string of elected officials who have used their office for financial and personal gain. Before Tuesday, there was former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $5.1 million book deal, then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ $300,000 bribe, then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s acceptance of nearly $4 million in exchange for state grants, then-Gov. David Paterson’s witness tampering and then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s involvement in a prostitution ring—and that just covers the last 15 years.
This is one New York tradition that needs to end. The most recent attempt to fix these integrity problems among state officials came in 2011 with the creation of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which was set up as an independent monitor to provide ethics oversight. But JCOPE was fundamentally flawed from the outset, primarily because it was far from independent: appointments were made by the same policymakers whom commissioners were supposed to hold accountable. In the final years of Gov. Cuomo’s tenure, his administration’s influence over JCOPE became so obvious that even commissioners have called for an independent investigation into their own procedures.
In her FY2023 budget proposal, Gov. Hochul took another stab at reform, vowing to replace JCOPE with a new ethics agency that would be more independent and transparent than its predecessor. But after several behind-closed-doors meetings with legislative leadership, the resultant Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government (CELG) plasters wallpaper over the cracks without addressing the fundamental lack of transparency or independence from policymakers.
CELG makes a few small changes to JCOPE’s structure, but the similarities remain striking. JCOPE featured a 14-member commission in which six members were appointed by the governor and eight by legislative leaders. In her original reform proposal, Gov. Hochul proposed a five-member rotating commission of law school deans or their designees. Legislative leaders, apparently concerned about their lack of involvement in the commission’s selection process, appeared to come to an agreement with the governor in which policymakers would make a large number of nominations, and finalists would be vetted and selected by an independent review committee. That solution represented a workable compromise.
But the final version of the plan returns CELG nominations entirely to lawmakers, with the 11-member commission composed of three nominations from the governor, two each by the Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker, one each by the minority leaders in each chamber, one by the comptroller and one by the state attorney general. The role of the law school deans is reduced to mere confirmation or denial of each nominee, which does nothing to fix the fundamental flaw of commissioners being beholden to policymakers.
Republicans have raised concerns that CELG will be even more partisan than JCOPE. While JCOPE nominations were made by Republican and Democratic leaders without regard to which party controls each chamber, under the current make-up of the legislature, CELG will be made up of nine commissioners nominated by Democrats and two by Republicans. It doesn’t require much of a leap to wonder, particularly in today’s hyper-partisan environment, if this might result in different prioritization or treatment based on lawmakers’ political party.
The news isn’t all bad, as policymakers made a few important structural adjustments. For instance, while JCOPE had complex voting rules and procedures, CELG commissioners will vote by simple majority, which will likely address transparency concerns. But the core issue that ultimately rendered JCOPE “toothless and useless,” as good government advocates termed it, persists in its successor: just as foxes cannot guard henhouses, “independent” monitors cannot be selected by the people they’re supposed to monitor. If New Yorkers want the kind of oversight that can prevent corruption charges from continuing to be a regular news story, the public should not settle for these half-hearted reforms.