Legislative Gazette: Calls for state ethics overhaul increasing

Craig M. Johnson

Legislative Gazette Staff Writer
Tue, May 26, 2009

After releasing a 174-page report on an investigation into leaks of confidential information by former Public Integrity Commission Executive Director Herbert Teitelbaum, Inspector General Joseph Fisch said the appointment of more ethical people to the board would be necessary to fix ongoing problems.

Meanwhile, the governor, lawmakers and government watchdogs, including David Grandeau who formerly headed the now- defunct Temporary Commission on Lobbying, say a large-scale overhaul of the state's ethics system may be necessary.

Less than a week after the inspector general's May 13 report found that a member of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's cabinet, Robert Hermann and Teitelbaum were discussing confidential information related to an open investigation, both men involved have resigned.

"Herbert Teitelbaum and Robert Hermann betrayed the public trust," Fisch said. "This is the Public Integrity Commission for heaven's sake, the primary promoter of ethics in government and the executive director's leaks information about his investigation. If that is not a betrayal of his public trust then I cannot think of a synonym for it."

Fisch addressed the Senate Committee on Investigations and Government Operations last Tuesday saying no further investigation into the Public Integrity Commission is necessary following the resignations of Teitelbaum and Hermann. However, he said the state's overall ethics and integrity oversight structure should be reformed.

The report found that Teitelbaum unlawfully disclosed confidential information to Hermann in 2007, who worked for the governor at the time while the commission was investigating the so-called Troopergate scandal involving former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and former Senate Majority Leader L. Joseph Bruno.

The Troopergate scandal centered on accusations that officials in the Executive Chamber and the state police improperly obtained and released confidential information regarding Bruno's travel records.

"[The report's] findings addressed long standing assertions that the Public Integrity Commission is broken and that its top members were engaged in behavior that violated the law, and -- just as importantly  -- the public trust," said Chairman of the Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, Sen. Craig Johnson, D-Port Washington.

According to Fisch, Hermann testified under oath that Teitelbaum had given him confidential information. The report notes that Hermann was not authorized to have the information Teitelbaum gave him and that Teitelbaum violated New York�s Executive Law and Public Officers Law. State law requires commission officials to keep investigations confidential.

"The sad reality is that this issue is much larger than the Public Integrity Commission," Gov. David A. Paterson said. "The general perception is that the ethics process in Albany is broken and I believe it is. This is the urgent challenge that we in government must address."

Paterson said he would propose legislation to create a new Government Ethics Commission that would be independent and have jurisdiction over state government, lobbying and campaign finance.

Initially, Teitelbaum and the rest of the commission refused Paterson's call for them to resign. Paterson is unable to fire his own appointees on the commission, which is intended to be independent of the governor and legislative leaders who appoint its members to set terms.

"I was careful not to accuse any one commissioner of wrongful conduct; I have no information to indicate that any single commissioner was at fault," Gov. David A. Paterson said in a statement. "However, the Commission was notified of unauthorized leaks and in my judgment, and that of the Inspector General, collectively failed to act but should have. As a result, the Commission has been compromised and its public standing is in question."

Teitelbaum announced his resignation on May 18. In a written statement he said the inspector general's findings were based on "speculation and hearsay." Hermann's resignation came a day later in which he also issued a statement against the claims saying his conduct was "inaccurately interpreted."

Fisch admitted that not one member of his office wanted him to undertake this investigation. "They told me it was a no-win situation," he said. However, Fisch wanted to demonstrate that [Paterson's] is a different administration, a different inspector general and a different secretary to whom the inspector general reports. "With all due respect to my predecessor, she had a good reputation but I don't think she was the right person for the job," he said.

New York Public Interest Research Group Executive Director Blair Horner agreed with Fisch saying "past inspector generals have viewed the position as a promotion rather than an opportunity to do a good job."

Horner and David Grandeau, former executive director of the Lobbying Commission, both agreed that Fisch was doing a good job as inspector general. "I did it for 12 years," Grandeau said referring to his former position. "I think the inspector general is in the category of people who are capable of doing the right thing."

Although the Senate committee and other groups are calling for reform to the Public Integrity Commission, Grandeau and Fisch agree the bigger problem in New York state is the people who are hired for the job.

"It's not entirely the structure, but restructuring can help," Grandeau said. "It's more the people who are hired. If you don't do more to get the right people, it won't matter if we reform the entity."

The inspector general was adamant that a "new start" and hiring the right people for the job would be steps in the right direction to reform. "You can have the best system in the world and the wrong people will find a way to beat it," Fisch said. "You can have the worst system in the world and the best people will find a way to make it work. I think what went wrong was the appointment of the executive director, he was the wrong person for the job."

Although legislators and good government groups are calling for reform, the Integrity Commission says it is not entirely at fault. "The Commission on Public Integrity was created by the Legislature and the governor, said Walter Ayres, a spokesman for the Public Integrity Commission. "They decided how many people are going to be on the commission and they decided who appoints the people on the commission. For them to criticize us for the way they created us, I think is misguided."

Ayres continued saying, "Only in Albany does a person who led the investigation that found people violated the law get charged with betraying the public trust. Apparently people think you're supposed to cover these things up and then you don't betray the public trust."

Horner and Grandeau alluded to the fact that the commission was notified of Teitelbaum's actions on three separate occasions and did not do anything about it. Grandeau said he thinks the remaining commission members should hold a press conference to explain themselves.

Barbara Bartoletti, the legislative director of the League of Women Voters, said the league does not have a position on whether the remaining members of the integrity commission should resign. "We don't have a position on the individual members," Bartoletti said. "We do think in order to get around those members of the commission there should be some kind of reform and the entity should be truly independent."

Bartoletti said there has been enough evidence to mandate reform and gave a few suggestions for the future of the Integrity Commission. "The selection process of the members needs to be spread among the district attorney, the inspector general, the governor and the legislative leaders," she said of choosing new members. "We are one of the few states that have separate entities for the legislative and the executive branch. There should be one entity that is independent and covers both."

"We've got to address this issue of the Public Integrity Commission," Johnson said. "My concern is: will the result be massive resignations? Especially in light of claims that there are other things going on in the current administration and that has to be addressed down the line."

Fisch said the resignations of Hermann and Teitelbaum have served the public interest. "You have two resignations that have taken place within the last two days and these were the principle actors," he said. "One was Teitelbaum and one was Hermann. I don't know whether any additional purpose would be served by any further pursuit , the goal was accomplished.

Johnson said the overall issue with the Integrity Commission will take some time and will need to be reviewed in a thoughtful manner. He added that with only 16 legislative days remaining in this session, as of last Tuesday, legislators need to address what loopholes exist and start to look at the problems.

"It is clear that changes need to be made in order to create a truly independent oversight agency," Johnson said. "Whether these goals can be accomplished by reforming the current structure of the Public Integrity Commission, or by starting over and creating a brand new entity remains to be seen."

The Committee on Investigations and Government Operations are scheduled to hold a few more sessions before June 22, including one next month in which the Public Integrity Commission Chairman Michael Cherasky has been invited to give his thoughts on what changes could make the Integrity Commission more effective.