JCOPE’S Behavior Has Us All Scratching Our Heads

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) was created in 2011 to be Albany’s ethics watchdog. Its role is to ensure that public officials and government entities are operating within the rules, and adhering to state ethics laws and guidelines. Following multiple investigations, arrests and convictions of public officials, JCOPE’s effectiveness has never been more critical.  
But putting much faith in JCOPE is not something that comes easy. The panel is made up entirely of political appointees, it has played almost no role in any corruption investigations to date, and its independence from political persuasions has been questioned on a number of occasions. JCOPE’s recent activity has done little to reassure it has the ability to play a role in reforming Albany’s culture of corruption.
It was recently reported that JCOPE gave its blessing to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s decision to hire a lobbyist as a political consultant. According to media reports, the lobbyist, Patrick Jenkins, represents clients that include Uber, Fan Duel and the Trial Lawyers Association. The speaker’s decision and JCOPE’s opinion simply defy common sense. The convictions of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos are still fresh in our minds. Both were convicted of corruption crimes, and their trials focused extensively on outside influences on public policy. Allowing an influential lobbyist to be put on the speaker’s payroll might be legal, but sends the completely wrong message to constituents – it’s business as usual in Albany.  
JCOPE then turned around and recommended public relations consultants report their contact with members of the media and editorial boards. This is an affront to basic First Amendment rights. JCOPE argues that a PR consultant working with a news outlet is attempting to influence public officials through a third party. This is a dangerous path toward the inhibition of free speech and freedom of the press. We all realize the importance of accountability and transparency, but the media must be allowed to do their job, to issue content as they deem appropriate, and continue to serve as an important part of the public interest— its eyes and ears.
The commission’s recent missteps are further evidence it is an ineffective body that should be replaced. Among the anti-corruption proposals in the Assembly Minority’s Public Officers Accountability Act (A.4617) is a complete overhaul of JCOPE.  I have sponsored legislation that would establish a new, five-member Commission on Official Conduct that assumes the duties of JCOPE, the State Inspector General, and former Temporary State Commission of Investigation. The panel would be comprised of judicial appointments – not staffed by appointees of the governor and Legislature.
New York needs a truly independent ethics watchdog that is empowered and effective. An ethics watchdog beholden to the officials it is supposed to be watching hasn’t worked to date, and won’t help restore the public’s trust at a time when we need it most.
What do you think?  I want to hear from you. Send me your feedback, suggestions and ideas regarding this or any other issue facing New York State. You can always contact my district office at (315) 781-2030, email me at kolbb@assembly.state.ny.us, find me by searching for Assemblyman Brian Kolb on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter.

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