While the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, also known as J-COPE, has had a rocky tenure since its creation ten years ago, government watchdogs say things went from bad to worse this year.
Just a few months ago, the agency gave the green light to a $5 million book deal for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the details of which were kept hidden from the public.
On Tuesday, the State Senate plans to pass a bill reforming the much-criticized agency.
“The goal of this omnibus bill is to do three important things that we believe will not only make J-COPE stronger, but will also increase its integrity,” said Democratic State Senator Alessandra Biaggi. “Since we know there is an integrity issue with J-COPE, this will hopefully take it in a positive direction.”
The bill would create appointment parity, meaning each legislative leader, including of the minority party, could appoint two members. Under the current makeup, most members are appointed by the majorities and the governor.
It would also establish new voting requirements for violations. Under the current system, the majority party can block an investigation into unethical conduct. That would change to a straight majority vote.
And the reforms would also establish a straight majority vote for a new executive director. Critics say, for too long, Cuomo was able to appoint people loyal to him to the powerful position.
“I really do believe that we need to start again, which would involve a constitutional amendment that I am working on with the Assembly,” said State Senator Liz Krueger. “I’d say we are about 80% there, but it’s a complicated issue.”
This summer, the Senate plans to hold the first of two hearings to overhaul J-COPE early next year. But completely reimagining the agency would take a state constitutional amendment and a statewide referendum, a process that would take at least two years.
And yet, the reforms being taken up by the Senate on Tuesday could make significant changes to the agency before the end of the year.
“Any potential ethical violation that is made by the governor or the executive could be investigated by J-COPE currently,” explained Biaggi. “That includes book deals, or allegations about his abusive behavior. And what these laws would do is make it easier for an investigation to be initiated.”
The legislature has what’s known as a veto-proof majority, meaning they can pass this reform legislation without input from the governor. But a major stumbling block could be the Assembly, which has not committed to passing these reforms. The 2021 legislative session comes to a close next month.