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Bill Proposes Changes To Ethics Commission

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, speaks during a news conference in March in New York City.

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, wants to give the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) some teeth.

Biaggi recently introduced S.5254 in the state Senate to amend the state Executive Law and allow legislators and other state employees to be found guilty of ethical violations by JCOPE without the vote of at least two members of the accused’s political party.

Not only can’t JCOPE find someone guilty without two commission members from the person’s political party in agreement, JCOPE can’t even begin an investigation unless two members of the person’s political party approve. Biaggi’s proposal is included in a list of possible improvements to JCOPE backed by the New York City Bar Association.

“This provision creates an unnecessary roadblock to upholding ethical conduct among public employees by giving partisans an opportunity to protect members of their party,” Biaggi wrote in her legislative justification. “The provision not only creates an obstacle to issuing formal findings of ethical violations, but also creates an obstacle to initiating any ethical investigations. This bill removes the requirement that, in order to initiate ethical investigations or issue findings suggesting ethical violations occurred, two members of the ethics commission voting in favor of the action must also be members of the suspected individual’s own political party. After this bill is enacted, the vote of any eight members of the commission will be sufficient to initiate an ethics investigation and also to issue a report suggesting ethical violations occurred.”

For some, Biaggi’s legislation is too little, too late.

JCOPE was created in 2011, but there have been calls for years for an independent organization to prosecute ethics violations in state government. JCOPE was not mentioned as a possibility to investigate sexual harassment claims against Gov. Andrew Cuomo nor the withholding of nursing home data from the public and state legislators.

Last month, Cuomo appointed Camille Varlack, an attorney who served in his administration for four years.

Earlier this year, the New York City Bar Association’s Government Ethics and State Affairs Committee came to the conclusion that JCOPE needs fundamental change if it is to have much public benefit.

“Fundamentally, though, JCOPE’s mission continues to be challenged by the structural flaws that have been apparent from day one,” the report states. “Over the past ten years, the New York City Bar Association evolved from a view that the JCOPE’s governing law can be amended to remedy these structural flaws to the view that JCOPE should be abolished and replaced with a new entity established by constitutional amendment.”

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