New York lawmakers forced to postpone ethics hearing over open meetings concerns

A public hearing concerning ethics oversight in New York state that was initially scheduled for Monday ended up being postponed at the last minute after concerns were raised about whether the meeting would comply with open meeting laws.

Senate Committee on Ethics and Internal Governance Chair Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, said the cancellation was “out of an abundance of caution” after several committee members sought to participate virtually.

Ana Hall, Biaggi’s director of communications, told The Center Square on Monday afternoon that the hearing was initially scheduled when the COVID-19 state of emergency was still in effect and intended to be held virtually. Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted that emergency order last month.

“As the Senate Ethics Committee, and the first Senate Committee to hold a hearing since the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency, it is of the utmost importance we work with the highest level of integrity,” Biaggi posted on Twitter.

She told reporters on Monday that lawmakers are seeking clarity regarding the issue on how the meeting can be held.

On social media and to reporters, Biaggi stressed the hearing will take place. Hall said they’re working diligently to get it rescheduled.

One of the issues that would have been discussed Monday was the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), an agency created a decade ago to oversee ethics and lobbying in the state.

“The issue of JCOPE and how they operate is obviously one of central importance to the people of New York,” Biaggi told reporters. “It’s important to me as the chair of ethics. And it’s really important that we get this right now in a year where we have had a lot of ethics violations, that issues that need to be delved deeper into.”

Reinvent Albany, a watchdog organization that seeks greater transparency from state government, planned to present testimony at Monday’s hearing calling for a constitutional amendment that replaces JCOPE with an independent agency.

In a written copy of her testimony posted on the organization’s website, Rachael Fauss, a senior research analyst for Reinvent Albany, said massive scandals are nearly an annual occurrence in the state, and that JCOPE is “built on a quicksand of conflict of interest.”

“Federal prosecutors and the state Attorney General, not JCOPE, have conducted the fight against corruption in state government,” Fauss wrote. “The highly politicized JCOPE often appears to serve to protect those in power.”

Among issues that have been raised in just the past year alone is a book written by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuomo received more than $5 million for the book. Fauss noted that the joint commission has not done anything regarding claims that state staff and resources were used to write the book.

The book deal isn’t the only ethical quandary the embattled governor has faced. He also faces investigations over his administration’s handling of nursing home residents during the beginning stages of the pandemic. There are questions whether policies to force COVID-positive patients into facilities led to a dramatic spike in cases and whether the administration sought to suppress information that would have provided more detail about those deaths.

Then there’s the sexual harassment scandal, where several women – including some current and former staffers – have accused the governor of inappropriate touching and conversations. Those claims are also under investigation.

Biaggi was one of several prominent Democrats in Albany to call on the governor to resign as the harassment cases mounted. The myriad scandals have also led to an impeachment inquiry by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

“We can’t risk recreating our current system but with new acronyms. It’s time for real expertise, independence, and accountability- we cannot achieve a #HarassmentFreeAlbany without them,” tweeted Erica Vladimir on Monday morning. She planned to testify at the hearing on behalf of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, which consists of former legislative staffers who are pushing to improve conditions for workers.

This article was originally posted on New York lawmakers forced to postpone ethics hearing over open meetings concerns

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