News Coverage on Public Information

The Wall Street Journal

NY board won't disclose hire record

Michael Gormley
Monday, April 2, 2012

 

ALBANY, N.Y. — New York's powerful ethics board won't release any record of its secret vote to hire a longtime aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo as its $148,000-a-year executive director in a decision that raises wider concerns among good-government advocates.

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics denied The Associated Press request for the records under the state Freedom of Information Law. The commission has broad powers to investigate legislators and Cuomo administration officials, including legislative leaders and the governor.

"I think this is disturbing," said Bill Samuels of the New Roosevelt group, which seeks greater openness and accountability in government. "What is the big deal about making a vote transparent? There's no reason. The specific FOIL (request) is an indication of a culture that eventually is going to have problems ... This is not an open, transparent administration."

Susan Lerner of Common Cause-NY also saw a deeper concern in the refusal to release a public accounting of the vote. State law requires other agencies not only to release such data, but to vote in public when taxpayers' money is spent.

As a candidate, Cuomo had vowed to make his administration the most transparent in history.

"This is supposed to be government by people," Lerner said. "If the people don't know what's going on, we can't hold our elected officials accountable ... the truth of the matter is, secretive government can do anything."

Commission spokesman John Milgrim said the Public Integrity Reform Act under which Cuomo and the Legislature created the board last year prohibits release of the records to the public "and to suggest otherwise is misleading and inaccurate."

Milgrim wouldn't say why the commission wouldn't simply say how the vote was made and wouldn't say why it took two months to respond to the records request.

There was no immediate comment from Cuomo. Board members can be charged with a misdemeanor for talking about proceedings.

The board, which regulates both ethics and lobbying, voted Feb. 2 to hire Ellen Biben, who was most recently Cuomo's appointee as state inspector general. The commission responded to the AP's Feb. 3 request for the records nearly two months later. It is the first test of whether it will deny records to the public about how it spends its $3 million budget, whom it chooses to investigate, and whom it declines to investigate. Under the law creating the board, legislative representatives on the board can block or veto an investigation of a lawmaker or legislative staffer.

Lawmakers and Cuomo had argued for the provision to avoid what they called witch hunts by one branch of government or one house of the Legislature into another.

"The problem is the law and the way it is being interpreted is way too restrictive," Lerner said. "The statute is wrong ... this is the secrecy that results. They go way too far into secrecy because they claim they have law enforcement responsibility."

Samuels said the issue isn't the choice of Biben.

He said there's a "culture" in which it appears that "when there is a disagreement, the Cuomo administration tends to take that as disloyalty."

"When you have a culture that is run like a tough CEO, but there is no transparency, then there is a natural need and concern" that requires requesting records for even routine votes, Samuels said.

The AP sought the vote total, each vote by members who are paid $300 a day for their state work, who moved and seconded the motion, and any record of comment from the Cuomo administration on Biben.

"It's very disappointing," Lerner of Common Cause-NY. "This is the ethics commission. We don't expect people are setting the standards for ethics in our state to go to the minimum disclosure requirement."

Samuels said the ethics law that created the commission has "a lot of holes in it to begin with." He notes that commission members appointed by Cuomo, or those appointed by legislative leaders, can block an investigation of one of their own even if there is a 12-2 vote to investigate.

The commission's first meeting, held in December, was secretly called and held by telephone, which would have violated the state Open Meetings Law if the commission chose to follow the government accountability law. The meeting was revealed when the AP obtained an internal email announcing the session.

The meeting was called by Cuomo-appointed board chairwoman Janet DiFiore, the Westchester County district attorney. In recent weeks, Cuomo announced that all 62 county district attorneys, including DiFiore, signed on to support his proposal to greatly expand the state's DNA database.

Commission spokesman Milgrim, hired recently from the Cuomo administration, wouldn't commented on whether DiFiore's support of Cuomo's bill was lobbying that would be regulated by her commission.

 

 

 

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