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Reformers ask JCOPE to seek independence in top staffer

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ALBANY — A coalition of good-government groups are asking the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics to structure its search for a new executive director in a way that promotes independence at the watchdog entity.

JCOPE has received abundant criticism from those who see it as too closely aligned with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who appoints six of the panel’s 14 commissioners. All three of the executive directors who have served JCOPE since its creation in 2011 — Ellen Biben, Letizia Tagliafierro and Seth Agata, who is slated to leave the post this month — came from jobs in Cuomo’s administration. Tagliafierro returned to Cuomo’s employ after leaving JCOPE in 2015, and was recently appointed by the governor as state inspector general.

During last year‘s general election, Cuomo said he would like to see JCOPE gain greater independence, but he has failed to push any measures to accomplish that goal.

“As you know, an essential purpose of ethics regulation is to maintain public confidence in government,” the letter begins. “To that end it is important the new executive director be independent in both reality and appearance.”

The letter calls on the commissioners to agree to a handful of requirements for the new top staffer at the agency, including rejecting any candidate who within the past three years has been a New York government officer or employee, held political party office, or been a lobbyist. The letter also says the new director should not come from within JCOPE itself or the Legislative Ethics Commission.

The letter also calls on the commissioners to “make an independent decision” without discussing the candidates with “their appointing authorities or any staff or agents of that authority.”

The reformers also note that the governor’s nominations to the Court of Appeals are drawn from a list prepared by the state Commission on Judicial Nomination. What the letter refers to as “a less formal version of that commission should vet candidates for the important position of JCOPE director.”

The letter, released Wednesday, was signed by the leaders of nine top state reform groups, including the Campbell Public Affairs Institute of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs; the Carey Institute for Government Reform; Citizens Union; Common Cause New York; the League of Women Voters; the New York Public Interest Research Group; and Reinvent Albany.

In response to the letter, JCOPE spokesman Walt McClure released a statement from Michael Rozen, the panel’s chair and a Cuomo appointee.

“The commission has publicly stated that it has established a representative subcommittee to make recommendations to the full commission regarding the process for, and hiring of, a new executive director,” Rozen said. “Beyond that, the commission will have no further comment until its regularly scheduled meeting on June 25th.”

The subcommittee is composed of Rozen as well as his fellow Cuomo appointees James Dering and Daniel Horwitz; George Weissman, appointed by Senate Republican leader John Flanagan; and James Yates, appointed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

JCOPE’s job listing was posted to StateJobsNY and Monster.com two weeks ago, with a deadline of June 28 for responses.

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