A toothless watchdog lurks the halls in Albany


The conviction of the former majority leader of the New York state senate in July saw the last of a quartet of guilty verdicts in a series of Albany corruption trials.

Previously, the governor’s closest aide and an associate of the governor both suffered that same fate. Before them, the former speaker of the New York state Assembly also was found guilty. 

Over the years, there have been many New York state legislators and Albany insiders who have gone to jail.

Folks who care about ethics in government say one reason for all this lawbreaking in Albany is the lack of a state ethics watchdog with teeth. New Yorkers need a watchdog which has leadership independent of the Albany politicians, and which operates in a way that is transparent to the public.

The course of the investigation of the accusation that state Sen. Jeff Klein is guilty of sexual harassment is in a different category than the corruption convictions cited above, but it illustrates the need for such a watchdog.

The senator responded to allegations that he kissed an aide against her will by publicly calling on the Joint Commission on Public Ethics to investigate the accusation. He said that a guilty man would not make such a request. Well, that was a disingenuous gesture on the part of the senator.

Here’s why. JCOPE may, in fact, not be looking into the matter. If you call the commission and ask how the investigation is going, they will tell that by law, they cannot tell you anything — not even if there is an investigation. There may well not be one.

JCOPE has 14 commissioners, but they are not independent of the governor or the leaders of the state legislature who appointed them. Only two of the members appointed by the governor are needed to veto an investigation, and only three votes from the appointees of the legislative leaders can end an investigation. It is entirely possible that this investigation was shut down before it started.

If JCOPE did decide not to investigate, that would not be made known to the public. And, if, after a long involved process JCOPE found that the charge of sexual harassment was valid, they could not impose a penalty. That would have to be done by another body, the Legislative Ethics Commission, which has the power to reject JCOPE’s recommendations and do nothing.

Whatever the outcome of the JCOPE investigation, if it is taking place, voters would be left to wonder if politics played a part in determining that result because the commission members are clearly not independent of the governor and the legislative leaders.

It would be wonderful if voters in the Democratic primary for state senator in the 34th State Senatorial District had some solid information on this issue involving Sen. Klein before they marked their ballots in September, but there may either be nothing from JCOPE, or a conclusion which might be influenced by politics.

There were bills in both houses of the state legislature which would have begun the process to amend the New York State Constitution in order to create a truly independent ethics watchdog, whose work would be both unbiased and transparent. Sadly, both the Democratic-controlled Assembly and the Republican-controlled state senate failed to pass those bills.

There are probably scandalous things going on in Albany right now, which we will never know about. But more of them would come to light if we had a commission which really looked out for the public.

Gene Binder