As impeachment investigators in the New York legislature and the attorney general’s office take the lead in investigating allegations of power abuses and improprieties by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, it remains to be seen what role might be played by the state’s ethics agency.
Top Democratic lawmakers have said the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the state agency dedicated to ensuring the governor, lawmakers and candidates for office follow state ethics rules, does not have the political independence it needs to investigate allegations against the governor.
“No one believes JCOPE is an independent actor,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “Its credibility has been so thoroughly damaged over the years that it doesn’t have the credibility that I think the public deserves.”
Here is a look at the duties of state ethics investigators as more questions arise about sexual harassment accusations, state employees’ role in a recent book by Cuomo, allegations of preferential access for COVID-19 testing for the governor’s family last year, altering of the state’s nursing home virus death count, and whether repairs on a state bridge were neglected:
WHY ARE SOME SKEPTICAL OF THE AGENCY’S INDEPENDENCE?
The agency was created by legislation in 2011. From the get-go, critics have contended the commission is too secretive and that its politically appointed membership lacks independence.
The governor appoints six of its 14 members. And by law, undertaking an investigation into any governor would require a yes vote from two of his or her appointees.
In 2019, the agency didn’t open an investigation into former top Cuomo aide Joe Percoco’s use of state resources. Percoco is currently in federal prison, convicted of accepting more than $300,000 from companies seeking to influence Cuomo’s administration.
Lawmakers have proposed reforms including a constitutional amendment to replace the agency with an independent one largely appointed by judges and eliminating the rule that allows two of its members to veto an investigation or adverse finding.
COULD BOOK DEAL VIOLATE ETHICS LAWS?
An inquiry by the agency could reveal whether the governor’s work on a recent book about leadership is in line with ethics laws, as his office argues it is.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that lower-level employees in the governor’s office were asked to type up notes for the book or print portions of a draft of the book. Cuomo often referenced his book in press conferences or national media appearances last year, even though the agency has said the governor shouldn’t “advertise, otherwise promote or endorse the book when he is performing his state duties.”
Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi said he and at least two staffers volunteered their time on the book “on their own time,” but didn’t say how many staffers were involved. He also said the governor’s mentioning of the book or answering questions from the media about it should not be considered advertisements.
Horner said the agency could request a copy of his book contract, which could reveal details Cuomo’s declined to make public including how much he has been paid. Cuomo, who’s promised to donate a portion of proceeds to an unknown charity, hasn’t said whether he’ll reveal those specifics in his tax returns or financial disclosure statements.
HOW IS THE AGENCY INVOLVED IN CUOMO INVESTIGATIONS?
The state’s attorney general office, federal prosecutors and the Assembly’s judiciary committee are investigating various allegations, including whether Cuomo abused his power to sexually harass women — including current employees — and withhold data about the number of nursing home residents who have died of COVID-19.
The Assembly’s judiciary committee has said its own investigation is broad and will include a review of the book deal and whether the governor’s family got access to quicker test results than other New Yorkers. The legislative probe, led by a Manhattan firm with ties to the governor, is reviewing whether there are grounds to impeach the governor.
The role of the agency is unclear. Agency spokesperson Walt McClure said it doesn’t comment on matters that could or are subject to investigation.
The office of Attorney General Letitia James last week urged the agency to “immediately” look into reports that Cuomo and others connected to him received special access to coronavirus tests a year ago, when such testing was scarce. James, a Democrat, said her office lacked jurisdiction.
State ethics commissioners are set to meet April 9, and could take a vote in closed executive session to launch an investigation. But commissioners aren’t required to disclose anything about their investigations, unless they decide to sanction someone.
“We may never know what JCOPE does. That’s part of the problem,” Horner said.