New York Gov. Kathy Hochul insisted Wednesday she still plans to turn an embattled public ethics commission “upside down” despite naming an appointee of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo to serve as the agency’s acting chairman for its meeting Tuesday.
At that meeting of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), James Dering, one of two appointments Hochul announced that same morning, voted against a measure that called for the recently resigned governor to return more than $5 million he received to write a book regarding his management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hochul’s other last-minute appointment, former Suffolk County District Administrative Judge C. Randall Hinrichs, also voted against the measure.
Dering’s appointment brought criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, with some beginning to question if Hochul was sincere in previous comments about pushing to change the culture in Albany.
State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, said in a statement after the JCOPE meeting the move concerned her and it likely means the legislature will need to do the heavy lifting on the matter.
“Gov. Hochul had both an opportunity and responsibility to appoint a new Chair with the qualifications to transform the culture of JCOPE,” Biaggi said. “Rather than fulfilling her promise to prioritize transparency and integrity in government, Gov. Hochul’s appointment only maintains the status quo.”
On Wednesday, Assemblymember Michael Montesano, R-Glen Head, said in a statement he would become a co-sponsor of a bill that would do away with partisan voting requirements for JCOPE to start an investigation or announce findings.
Montesano said the bill, sponsored by Assembly Ethics and Guidance Committee Chairwoman Jo Anne Simon, D-Brooklyn, would lead to greater transparency and efficiency in future JCOPE meetings.
“It is high time JCOPE received an update, as it’s clear the commission not only lacks transparency and balance, but its bylaws are cumbersome to navigate,” Montesano said. “There is no need for these partisan votes, it should be all-bipartisan.”
Last month, JCOPE voted 8-0 with five members abstaining to refer an alleged leak of a confidential vote and a subsequent inspector general investigation into that matter to Attorney General Letitia James. However, James notified the commission she could not accept the referrals because of none of Cuomo’s appointees voted for the referral.
At Tuesday’s meeting, JCOPE revoted to send the confidential vote matter to James, this time with an 11-1 vote and one abstention. The inspector general referral, though, failed to get the necessary eight votes for approval.
While some lawmakers are pushing for more instant reforms, other lawmakers have called for wholesale changes to ethics oversight in state government. That includes the possibility of a new independent commission created by a constitutional amendment.
The Albany Times-Union reported late Tuesday night that a Hochul spokesperson said Dering’s appointment would not be permanent and that he would leave the commission before its next meeting.
Hochul, in answering reporter questions Wednesday, said what happened Tuesday was necessary in order for the commission to conduct business, and she made it seem she had few options.
“What happened yesterday was as a result of two resignations, in order for there to be any business going forward, I had to appoint somebody, and that is the circumstance we were in yesterday,” the governor said. “I had to find an individual, an individual who is highly recommended, has credentials, but literally is unknown to me.”
She added her administration plans to vet future JCOPE candidates, and that she will neither interfere nor comment on commission proceedings.
However, she said Tuesday’s actions were not in any way an attempt to “cut a better deal” for Cuomo, who resigned last month amid sexual harassment allegations and faced numerous other investigations on those and other matters.
“I said what I’m going to do is turn it upside down and to challenge the premise that an entity that is created by elected officials with their own appointees should be charged with investigating those individuals, should circumstances arise,” the governor said. “The whole premise behind it is flawed.”
This article was originally posted on Hochul says she’s committed to New York’s ethics commission reforms despite Tuesday’s actions