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August 10, 2013

Ethics board seems averse to sunlight, transparency

New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics was created with the goal of restoring the public’s trust in state government by, among other things, shedding light on the interactions between lobbyists and elected officials.

But since the commission was established in 2011, its members have seemed much more concerned with coddling their favorite interest groups than increasing transparency.

The latest example came last week when conservative groups cried foul over the panel’s exemption for abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice from rules requiring lobbying groups to disclose the names of donors who contribute more than $5,000.

The commission has argued that such exemptions are necessary to protect donors from retribution or harassment; defenders of the policy have cited the 1998 murder of Buffalo-area OB/GYN Barnett Slepian by anti-abortion extremist James Charles Kopp as proof such threats exist.

But political violence can spring from almost any issue imaginable. If we’re going to protect those who’d like to use cash to influence public policy on one particular issue, then why shouldn’t lobbyists on other issues remain secret, too?

Conservative group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms made that argument last week, asking JCOPE to grant it an exemption or revoke NARAL’s. The New York Civil Liberties Union and Family Planning Advocates of New York later followed suit, asking for their own exemptions to the disclosure laws.

Commissioner David Renzi acknowledged last week that the exemptions may be overly broad.

“What we’re really talking about is allowing tens of millions of dollars to be exempted from review,” Renzi said. “We should have that debate publicly. I think we maybe made a mistake or two along the way, and it’s a new organization.”

But we’ll believe it when we see it. The commission has undermined its credibility by repeatedly flouting open-government laws, and by selectively enforcing its own rules. When Ellen Biben, a longtime aide of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was in April 2012 named its executive director, JCOPE curiously blocked the Associated Press’ rather ho-hum Freedom of Information request for the vote tally.

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