(The Center Square) – Nearly three weeks after it last met, the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics will meet on Tuesday morning. This time, it may take action regarding the $5.1 million deal former Gov. Andrew Cuomo received to write a book last year regarding the COVID-19 crisis.
JCOPE tabled a decision on the controversial book deal during a special called meeting on Aug. 26. That meeting, which at times was contentious, included a closed session discussion on that topic that was broadcast live, according to the New York Post.
The commission’s agenda for Tuesday includes a report from staff members on an “inadvertent broadcast” from that meeting.
Last year, a JCOPE staff member approved a request by Cuomo, who was still in office at the time, to receive money for the book. That action was not addressed by the commissioners, who are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.
Last week, though, the Albany Times-Union reported that state Attorney General Letitia James issued a subpoena to the commission regarding its work on the book deal. That, according to the paper, is part of a larger investigation by her office into the deal.
At last month’s JCOPE meeting, commissioners did vote to ask James to look into allegations that a secret vote was disclosed illegally after a January 2019 meeting. Julie Garcia, a former commissioner appointed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, said an aide to the Bronx Democrat told her that Cuomo was unhappy about her vote to investigate Joe Percoco.
At that meeting, JCOPE chose not to investigate Percoco, who was convicted in 2018 on federal bribery charges.
Lawmakers and public watchdog groups have been increasingly critical of JCOPE in recent years. Their criticisms include the inconsistent way matters are handled within the organization, with some items voted on by the appointed commissioners and others handled by internal staff members.
Opponents also say JCOPE really isn’t an independent watchdog since the governor and legislative leaders appoint members. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Albany have called for broad-based ethics reform, with a constitutional amendment put in place to create a strong independent review agency.
For now, though, lawmakers are pinning their hopes on new Gov. Kathy Hochul and her pledge for transparency.
Last week, state Sen. Anthony Palumbo, R-New Suffolk, wrote a letter to Hochul asking her to fill vacancies on the commission before Tuesday’s meeting. That letter, which was a follow-up to one sent on Aug. 20, indicated that if two open spots were not filled before the upcoming meeting, then it could lead to the commission not approving an investigation on the book deal or other unethical conduct by her predecessor.
Cuomo resigned last month after an independent investigation overseen by James substantiated claims of sexual harassment and intimidation by the then-governor and his administration. However, the governor is also the subject of several other reviews at the state and federal levels.
“It is troubling and frankly unconscionable, given how the voting rules of JCOPE operate, that these vacancies could result in a situation where JCOPE confidentially considers taking action on any of the numerous serious allegations and the vacant seats would operate as a confidential veto, in effect exonerating the former governor for those matters,” wrote Palumbo, the ranking member on the Senate Ethics and Internal Governance Committee. “This would be an offensive outcome.”