Gannett: As new ethics panel forms, current probes put on ice
By Joseph Spector, Gannett
ALBANY -- On Monday, staff from the state Inspector General's Office took the keys to the investigatory files of the state Commission on Public Integrity. The commission's work is essentially over.
Started in 2007, the commission was a merger of the previous lobbying and ethics panels and charged with investigating misdeeds in the executive branch and among lobbyists. But it is being overhauled under a sweeping new law signed Monday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The changes began swiftly. The Inspector General's Office, which also investigates the executive branch, took custody of the commission's roughly 60 open investigations and will put them on hold until the new ethics panel, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, starts within 120 days.
Twelve of the roughly 46 workers at the commission were also let go Monday. The commission will continue some of its work -- such as registering lobbyists and accepting financial disclosure forms from public officials. But it won't pursue investigations or issue advisory opinions. The commission's probes were private until there was a specific finding.
Commission spokesman Walter Ayres said any complaints they receive before the new panel is operating, likely in early December, would be forwarded to the appropriate authorities or logged until the new panel takes over.
"We're not in a period where people can break the law with impunity," he said. "If we can't investigate them today, the new commission can investigate them when they start."
Some watchdog groups said they don't expect potential ethical breaches will go unchecked during the transition period.
"Unless somebody blows the whistle and calls the public's attention to it, you have to trust, in some instances, that public officials do the right thing and that they maintain the integrity. And that's certainly our expectation," said Russ Haven, counsel for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Sen. Daniel Squadron, D-Brooklyn, who pushed for tougher ethics laws, said the new panel should be able to pick up where the current commission left off.
"We have to make sure that JCOPE gets formed quickly and when they do that we're given confidence that there's a seamless transition," he said. "I think we can operate with the assumption that both things will happen."
The outgoing commission has been criticized for poor oversight. In particular, it was accused of leaking information to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's staff in 2007 during its probe of whether his office conspired to damage former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno.
The new law -- the Public Integrity Reform Act of 2011 -- will require lawmakers to more accurately disclose any outside income and provide the names of business clients.
A new 14-member commission will consist of six people appointed by the governor, with Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats each appointing three members each. Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats each will tap one member.
The commission will watch over the legislative and executive branches. Lobbyists will also have to disclose their business relationships with officials, and lawmakers elected in the future could be forced by a judge to give up their pension if convicted of a felony.
Cuomo has yet to detail the process for picking the members or the size of the new agency. The current one, still overseen by executive director Barry Ginsberg, operates on a $3.8 million budget in an office a few blocks from the Capitol.