New York’s much maligned state ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), agreed last week to launch an investigation – of itself. The reason? The Commissioners want an independent review of the agency’s decision to bless former Governor Cuomo’s $5 million book deal.
Some background. As the COVID pandemic first swept the nation, the former governor was widely applauded for his public educational efforts on the disease and how government and the public should respond. His presentations – which ran daily for months – were seen as a constructive alternative to the grossly incompetent response by former President Trump. Trump’s misleading, misinformed, and often malignant COVID briefings contributed to the nation’s failure to adequately address the pandemic. Former Governor Cuomo’s presentations, on the other hand, were widely viewed as competently presented, reassuring, and helpful to the public’s understanding of the pandemic.
The national acclaim prompted the governor to write a book on his experiences. At the time, the idea that a sitting governor would write a book to essentially “cash in” on his public service should have raised flags within the ethics oversight board. The governor and other members of New York’s executive staff are considered full-time employees and are not allowed to have outside income unless it is approved by ethics monitors.
New York’s governor is the highest paid in the nation and has significant public benefits in terms of travel, security, housing, and other perks all paid for by taxpayers. Allowing outside income to the governor should have triggered an independent review.
And so, the governor requested an ethics approval. That request was written by public servants during (apparently) their public time on the job and was presented on gubernatorial letterhead. Essentially the public was paying for the governor’s attorney to make his personal request for outside income.
That alone should have been a no-no. But the ethics watchdog agreed to the request for review. The staff of the ethics watchdog decided to conduct an internal, staff-only review without taking the request to the full Commission. The staff approved the former governor’s request, apparently without a review of the multi-million-dollar contract offered by the book publisher.
The request was approved with the caveat that no public resources could be used in writing the book.
As it turns out, the governor did use public resources in writing the book and that decision is currently under investigation by the Attorney General. Former Governor Cuomo argues that the staff who worked on the book did so voluntarily and that public resources were only incidental. We’ll see whether the investigation agrees with him.
The agency action that led to approval of the agreement in the first place is what the JCOPE Commissioners appear to be investigating. The members of the JCOPE Commission are appointees of the governor and the legislative leaders (itself a fundamental flaw) and with new members being appointed by the governor, it is far more likely that the episode will get a fresh examination.
The new chairman of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (a Governor Hochul appointee) announced that JCOPE would hire an outside attorney to examine the operations of the Commission. This vague announcement has been supplemented by reporting that the investigation would look at the decision-making into the approval by JCOPE of former Governor Cuomo’s book deal.
They would be right to look closely. This isn’t the first book deal that led to a big payday for the former governor. It is obvious that he should not have been allowed to use public resources to request approval for either one of the book contracts; he should have been told to use his own resources. That needs to be made clear by the Commission.
It should also be made clear that no public resources should be used for a public official’s private enrichment. None. Having subordinates allowed to voluntarily work on projects that personally enrich elected officials should be verboten.
And it should be made clear that plans to allow for significant outside income for full-time public employees must be made by a full Commission review.
This entire episode underscores a fundamental problem with ethics oversight in New York: The public can’t trust an ethics oversight system that relies on appointees of those whose behavior is being monitored. Governor Hochul and the legislative leaders need to replace the current flawed ethics oversight system.
There is no need for an investigation to make that decision. New York ethics needs an independent watchdog.