ALBANY – Its official title is the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE.
Its unofficial acronym, bowing to its dubious history and questionable decision-making, for years has been derisively called something else by many in Albany: JJOKE.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, in her first State of the State address, sets an ambitious agenda for her administration and lawmakers in the coming six months.
Now Gov. Kathy Hochul, who ascended to office because of alleged ethical lapses, in part, by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, wants to blow up JCOPE. Or, at least, mend its ways.
“It’s an important moment. She is governor because of scandal and she has pledged to change the culture and dynamics of Albany. This is the single most critical reform that Hochul and the Legislature can undertake this year," said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, one of the watchdog groups that has been in talks with the Hochul administration about the ethics agency idea.
The Democratic governor, in her State of the State on Wednesday, called for replacing JCOPE with “a new ethics enforcement agency … that answers to New Yorkers, not to politicians.”
On Wednesday, in her first State of the State speech, Gov. Kathy Hochul labeled her program a "New Era."
Her chief method: getting rid of the system by which JCOPE board members are selected. Board members now are people tapped for the decision-making panel by the governor and legislative leaders. Instead, Hochul wants a rotating five-member panel of law school deans – or, more likely, their designees – from the 15 state-accredited law schools in New York.
Hochul also proposes to end a special voting system JCOPE can now employ in which a minority of members can kill an investigation. It did just that when it blocked a probe into a 2019 leak about former top Cuomo adviser Joe Percoco, who was recently released from federal prison following a 2018 corruption conviction.
Hochul wants the replacement JCOPE agency to have its board make decisions by a majority vote. But, like JCOPE, it would police ethics in state agencies and also be the reporting and enforcement entity of the lobbying industry in Albany.
Further, the new ethics agency, like other state agencies, would be covered by the Freedom of Information Law, as well as the open meetings law – restricting JCOPE’s long history of quickly closing public access to meetings in favor of secret, closed-door sessions.
Many of the discussions about Cuomo’s controversial Covid-19 book deal were held in secret by JCOPE. It was only after Hochul took office and she appointed two new members to the JCOPE board that the outside income agreement Cuomo received from JCOPE in 2020 was retroactively rescinded because officials said he used state resources with the project. The ethics agency recently sought to claw back the $5.1 million Cuomo received for the book.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares said he found the woman bringing the complaint, Brittany Commisso, to be “credible," but that a review of the evidence has made him conclude “that we cannot meet our burden at trial.”
“New Yorkers expect more and deserve better," Hochul’s written message to the Legislature said on Wednesday.
The Hochul plan is getting mixed reviews for several reasons, including that watchdogs want to see the actual legislation to create a new ethics agency instead of relying on a few words Hochul used Wednesday to describe her plan.
Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, called the law school deans’ board component an interesting but “an untested one, and one in which the details will matter.”
But Horner and others are concerned that Hochul’s ethics package is too limited. They wanted her to address widespread problems with the state’s election and campaign finance systems – which critics say is designed to protect incumbents and to protect the interests of just the Democratic and Republican parties.
Hochul also made no mention of the state Inspector General’s office, long criticized over many administrations as being too cozy with governors and their top advisers.
The legislation, introduced Friday in the State Senate, seeks to address allegations in an Assembly Judiciary Committee report that found Cuomo had numerous senior and junior staffers helping with his $5.1 million book deal.
Hochul did, however, say she will propose legislation to “harmonize” local government ethics laws with state ethics laws when it comes to things such as the giving of gifts, lobbying, nepotism and stated standards of conduct. She said local laws have failed to keep up with state laws, resulting in systems in which “municipal officials are sometimes held to different and lower standards of conduct” than state officials.
Reinvent Albany and other groups spent months reviewing how other governments independently head ethics agencies.
“We believe Governor Hochul’s approach is sensible, realistic and will result in a truly independent ethics commission that will be a vast improvement over the dysfunctional, politicized and ineffectual JCOPE," Kaehny said.
Kaehny said Hochul is seeking to have independent people – not selected by the governor or lawmakers – from what’s called a “trusted group” model. Theoretically, the 15 law school deans would designate appointees to a pool, five of whom would then be selected for an undisclosed number of years, and then another five from the pool would take over the board.
A Hochul spokeswoman did not respond to an email seeking an explanation for why the governor chose the law school dean path for the board of a new ethics agency.
Under her plan, statewide elected officials – governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller – would be limited to two consecutive terms, or a total of eight years, in the job.
Like other watchdog groups, Reinvent Albany has also pressed for a series of changes to deal with corruption and a pay-to-play culture at the state Capitol. But Kaehny said Hochul’s JCOPE plan “is the biggest and boldest proposal in play – and it’s going to face plenty of opposition in the state Legislature.”
On its website, JCOPE notes that it was “created to restore public trust in government." It was created in a 2011 law. The agency has jurisdiction over more than 250,000 state employees. It collects and publishes annual financial statements from statewide elected officials and members of the Legislature and candidates for the Assembly and Senate, and makes public on its web site information about payments and expenses of entities that lobby in the state.
JCOPE, though, has been criticized by an assortment of groups and people, including female legislative staffers who condemned the process by which their sexual harassment allegations against state lawmakers were handled by JCOPE. The agency was heavily controlled by the Cuomo administration and it came under fire for deals allowing Cuomo to cut two book deals: the $5.1 million one in 2020 and a 2014 memoir that netted Cuomo nearly $800,000 on just over 3,000 book sales.
Horner, from NYPIRG, said he hopes Hochul keeps going with ethics law changes beyond JCOPE.
“Every thousand mile journey starts with the first step, and Governor Hochul’s State of the State plans moves ethics reform forward," he said Thursday.