Lawmakers mull new ways to fight Albany corruption  

Associated Press In this Feb. 13, 2019, file photo, State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, speaks during a public hearing at the Capitol in Albany.

ALBANY — New York's state government has been beset by a litany of corruption scandals in recent years despite various efforts to increase transparency and erect new barriers to ethical transgressions.

"We obviously in the past year have been riddled with more ethics violations and issues than at any other time in recent memory," Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-the Bronx, told CNHI.

Biaggi, as chair of the Senate Ethics and Internal Governance Committee, is set to preside over a hearing beginning Monday that will examine whether New York's oversight and enforcement of ethics is sufficient and whether the existing structures for achieving good government need to be repaired or replaced.

The attention on ethics comes in a year when Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing multiple investigations. A probe by federal prosecutors is examining the alleged undercounting of coronavirus nursing home deaths in New York at a time when Cuomo landed a $5.1 million book contract for a memoir about the "leadership lessons" he says he offered the nation.

Both Attorney General Letitia James and the Assembly Ethics Committee are looking into multiple allegations that the governor sexually harassed women, including female staffers employed by his administration.

One former Cuomo staffer, Charlotte Bennett, told CBS News last year the governor suggested he wanted to sleep with her and indicated he would be "fine" with any woman older than 22 years of age.

Cuomo, 63, denied making sexual advances at Bennett and said "nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate."

While it is unclear what will result from the federal and state investigations into Cuomo and his administration, there is no doubt the forum led by Biaggi will offer constructive criticisms for the existing ethics enforcement apparatus, namely, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE).

Biaggi herself wants to see JCOPE dismantled and replaced, She said she backs legislation put forward by Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan. Krueger would create a new ethics commission, one that would be enshrined in the state Constitution.

But since it would take at least two years to accomplish that, Biaggi said, it is important in the interim to improve JCOPE.

"If I could push a button tomorrow and eliminate JCOPE from our everyday experience as government and elected officials, I would do it," Biaggi said.

Good government advocacy groups such as Reinvent Albany and the New York Public Interest Research Group have been highly critical of JCOPE, accusing the agency of being a toothless watchdog reluctant to delve into allegations that would embarrass the governor.

In a February report, the New York City Bar Association, in an evaluation of JCOPE, noted it has evolved over the past decade from seeing JCOPE as structurally flawed to concluding it "should be abolished and replaced with a new entity."

John Kaehny, director of Reinvent Albany, said a prime example of how ineffective JCOPE has become came when the agency's staff gave Cuomo permission to line up a profit-making book contract about his role in leading the state through the pandemic without having the JCOPE commissioners review the proposed arrangement before it was finalized with the book publisher.

"One hundred percent of the corruption enforcement in New York has been by federal prosecutors, with zero from JCOPE," Kaehny said. "JCOPE has aggravated things by giving free passes to the governor for a multi-million-dollar book deal with a company whose parent company gets state subsidies in the form of film and television production tax credits."

If JCOPE were to be scrapped without any immediate replacement, Kaehny said, state officials would lose the "facade" of having an ethics watchdog in place, and might then do a better job of maintaining ethical standards.

A spokesman for JCOPE, Walt McClure, declined to comment on the Senate hearing and refused to say whether any representative of his agency plan to submit statements.

"You should reach out to the Legislature," McClure said. "It's their hearing. Not ours."

Other state officials said JCOPE's new director, Sanford Berland, is expected to attend Monday's hearing.

David Grandeau, an Albany lawyer who specializes in lobbying compliance matters and who was once chief of the now-defunct Lobbying Commission, said he believes the JCOPE structure could be spared but argued all of the current staff and commissioners should be terminated.

"This is an agency that is broken and corrupt, and it's corrupt from the top down," Grandeau said.

Grandeau charged that Berland, whose appointment as the new JCOPE director was announced April 28, filed a required financial disclosure report after it was due, and the agency then back-dated it.

McClure insisted the document was "submitted when it was supposed to be submitted." He declined to provide the date JCOPE received the document from the commission's new chief.

Biaggi said Monday's hearing will feature a hybrid of in-person and web-streamed testimony.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, one of dozens of lawmakers who called for Cuomo's resignation when the harassment allegations surfaced, said input at the hearing will help "ensure state government is best serving the people it represents.”

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhinews.com

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