Serbia, like far too many nations, has a problem with official corruption.
You can see it in its score on the most recent Corruptions Perception Index, which is compiled by Berlin-based Transparency International and measures “perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople.” Out of a possible 100, Serbia scored 39 — just below the average of 43 but in line with the level of rot the group measured in countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina (38) and Guyana (37). The U.S. scored 71, but before you pull a muscle patting yourself on the back, consider that we only came in 22nd out of 180 countries surveyed. Canada, with a score of 81, came in ninth.
It was, therefore, heartening on Thursday to speak with a group of Serbian journalists, academics and representatives of anti-corruption nonprofits who spent last week in Albany on a tour organized by the International Center of the Capital Region. It was good to meet people of like mind devoted to bringing their nation’s problems to light — and doing it in a country where speaking truth to power presents far greater peril than it does in all but the most extreme cases in the United States.
By the time they got to the Times Union, the delegation had met with a handful of government figures, including Bob Freeman of the state Committee on Open Government. On Wednesday, they had visited the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics and spoken to Seth Agata, who just a day earlier had announced that he would be leaving his post as JCOPE’s executive director after three years.
At the Times Union, reporter Chris Bragg and I asked what our Serbian visitors had thought of JCOPE, and whether they were aware that the soon-to-be-former top staffer at the state’s ethics watchdog had previously been a lawyer for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. We noted that Agata’s two predecessors in his current post had also gone to JCOPE after years spent in Cuomo’s service.
They said Agata had offered up that fact himself — which definitely earns him points for transparency — and that they thought that was weird.
Because it is weird — and stranger still when you consider that Agata, who plans to join a private sector law firm, is the third of three JCOPE executive directors to come from Cuomo’s team. I’ve written about this glaring conflict of interest before in this space, and there’s a very good chance that after JCOPE completes the kabuki exercise of another “nationwide” search for its next executive director, I will have the occasion to write about it again.
It’s quite possible that he could find himself in the public sector again in due time, like JCOPE’s first executive director Ellen Biben, who in 2015 was nominated by Cuomo to the state Court of Claims. Or her successor Letizia Tagliafierro, who left JCOPE for Cuomo’s Department of Taxation and Finance, then headed back to the Executive Chamber as a top Cuomo advisor, and in January was picked by Cuomo for a job that Biben used to hold before she was posted to — sorry, was hired by JCOPE’s commissioners: state inspector general.
Catherine Leahy Scott, the previous inspector general portrayed by Bonnie Hunt in the recent Showtime miniseries “Escape at Dannemora,” was handed the exciting and glamorous post of welfare inspector general. One suspects a Court of Claims nomination, or maybe a gold watch, lies in Leahy Scott’s future.
Tagliafierro is not the sort of investigator who will allow her office to get sideways with executive agencies in a way that could embarrass the governor in the way that Leahy Scott’s office found itself at cross-purposes with the state Department of Criminal Justice Services in late 2017, when the IG’s office recommended that disciplinary action should be taken against three top officials related to allegations of sexual harassment or the failure to properly address it. Instead, DCJS auto-exonerated its officials and allegedly chose to take career reprisals against two women who had the temerity to give testimony to Leahy Scott’s office.
Who is investigating this alleged reprisal? Well, that’s hard to say — although the governor asked JCOPE to look into it back in March 2018, when the Times Union’s Brendan J. Lyons brought this particular goat rodeo to light. Are Agata and JCOPE looking into it? If so, dear reader, they are taking their own sweet time.
It would be nice to imagine that the commissioners — Cuomo appoints a plurality of them — might actually go looking for someone who’s more of an ethics enforcer than a Cuomo loyalist.
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