Opinion Editorial on Ethics
How Shelly tarnished himselfBill Hammond
Two years ago, Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature assured us the Joint Commission on Public Ethics would be a new kind of Albany watchdog — one with the bite and independence to take on the most powerful players in state government .
The Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal — which reached right into the office of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the Legislature’s top Democrat — put that promise to the test right out of the box.
And now we know that JCOPE flunked its first big test. It failed even to seriously investigate whether Silver’s coverup of Lopez’s piggish mistreatment of female staffers constituted a violation of ethics laws.
That much was confirmed by Silver himself on Monday, when I finally got to ask him point-blank if the panel had ever formally notified him that he was under investigation, or that he had been cleared.
Both steps would have been legally required — under rules that Silver had helped to write — if JCOPE had actually probed his potential wrongdoing.
“Neither,” Silver answered. “My counsel actually called and asked if there was any kind of clearance, and he said, ‘You were never charged with anything, therefore you didn’t need to be cleared.’ ”
He makes that sound like he received a clean bill of health.
In fact, it’s smoking-gun proof that JCOPE went into the tank — taking him entirely off the hook before the staff subpoenaed a single document or interviewed a single witness.
JCOPE’s 68-page report rendered an opinion on the guilt or innocence of one and only one man — Lopez — accusing him of flagrant sexual harassment.
As for whether Silver and his aides broke the rules by secretly paying two women a settlement of $103,080 in taxpayer money — the panel had nothing to say.
Investigators interviewed him and his team, subpoenaed their documents and described in detail how the settlement came to happen — but only to establish Lopez’s role.
Since Silver himself had publicly welcomed a probe — and multiple groups had demanded one — there are really just two possible explanations for why JCOPE fell down on the job.
One, Silver’s three appointees on the 15-member commission used a veto granted to them by the JCOPE law to squash a probe of their political patron.
Two, the staff never bothered to ask, knowing that the idea was doomed from the start.
Worse, all of this decision-making was done in absolute secrecy. If commissioners and their employees breathed a word about what proposals came out and what voters were taken, they would be subject to criminal penalties.
All of which proves true the worst fears about JCOPE’s structure: that giving Albany bosses the power to block probes of themself in secret is laughably unworkable.
“It was completely obvious that was a cancer in the structure,” said attorney Richard Emery, a member of JCOPE’s predecessor watchdog, the Commission on Public Integrity.
“The worst thing about it is not even the veto, but the fact that it’s secret,” Emery continued. “Your worst suspicions will always be confirmed by the absence of denial. It’s crazy.”
Emery said he couldn’t be sure whether Silver’s coverup constituted a violation of the Public Officers Law. But one thing he’s sure of: “It would have been investigated . . . It would not have been ignored or not considered, as apparently occurred here.”
On Monday, Silver cited a statement from Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan as clearing him — but only of criminal conduct, not civil violations of the Public Officers Law.
Silver spokesman Michael Whyland further asserted: “A full review of the facts by both JCOPE and (Donovan) has found that all actions by the Assembly were lawful and there was no basis for an ethics complaint against the speaker or his staff.”
Silver has no one but himself to blame for the continuing shadow. He, along with Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, insisted on watering down JCOPE’s powers in negotiations with Cuomo.
It was their wish that legislative bosses be empowered to block investigations of themselves. It was their demand that the panel operate in strict confidence.
So it’s their responsibility — Silver’s responsibility — when JCOPE’s credibility and Silver’s reputation pay the price.