New York state Senate chamber New York state Senate chamber. Photo Credit: Westpoint/CC

Several New York state lawmakers and attorneys in Albany on Tuesday called for an amendment to the state constitution that they argue would tackle the ongoing problem of public corruption.

The legislation, which would not become law for at least three years, would replace the two current state ethics watchdog panels that monitor the Legislature and the governor’s office and replace them with a new nine-member commission that would have broader power to penalize public officials over allegations of misconduct.

Unlike the current state ethics panels, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Legislative Ethics Commission, the new commission would allow Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and the presiding justices of the state’s four appellate courts to appoint the majority of its members. The judiciary does not currently appoint any of the members of the state’s ethics panels.

“They will have the majority of the appointments to really make it independent,” said Evan Davis, a senior counsel at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in Manhattan who worked with the bill’s sponsors on the legislation. Those sponsors are Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, and Assemblyman Robert Carroll, D-Brooklyn.

The new panel, according to the legislation, would be called the New York State Government Integrity Commission. It’s modeled after the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which has power through the state constitution to penalize and remove judges from office who are accused of misconduct.

It has the support of several good government and civic organizations, including the New York City Bar Association and the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School. Berit Berger, executive director of the center and a former federal prosecutor, said the legislation has the potential to put New York on the same level as other states with strong ethics enforcement agencies.

“Our real hope is that government ethics is not an oxymoron or a punch line, but something that can be real,” Berger said. “We really think New York should be a leader in this field. It is embarrassing that other states have really lapped us and taken stronger measures and have really robust institutions to enforce ethics violations.”

The proposed commission would not have the power to remove an elected official from office, but it could recommend to the Legislature that the individual be ousted. There’s currently a process in the Legislature for removing a member from public office.

That wouldn’t leave the commission powerless. It would have the power to refer its findings to federal or state prosecutors, including the state attorney general’s office, if an official was found to have potentially broken state law. It would also be able to publicly censure or admonish a lawmaker, which may require the individual to notify their constituents that they were found to have committed misconduct.

The rules for nonelected employees of the Legislature and the executive branch are different under the legislation. The bill would allow the proposed commission to suspend, demote or even remove nonelected employees from their position. That decision could be appealed through litigation unless it’s been referred for criminal prosecution, according to the legislation.

The proposed commission would also serve as an umbrella enforcement agency for the state’s campaign finance, contract procurement and workplace misconduct laws and regulations, including those related to sexual harassment.

Campaign finance violations are currently handled initially by the state and local boards of elections. Under the legislation, investigations and enforcement of the state’s campaign finance laws would fall under the proposed commission’s jurisdiction. It would also be empowered to recommend to the Legislature new limits on campaign contributions to candidates and political organizations in New York.

According to the bill’s sponsors, that would be an effort to prevent future quid pro quo relationships between lawmakers and their donors. In the same vein, the panel would also have jurisdiction over situations where public officials are accused of taking kickbacks in exchange for state government contracts.

The proposed commission would also be among the first public bodies in the country to uniformly oversee workplace misconduct violations in two branches of state government. Allegations of sexual harassment are currently reviewed and addressed by JCOPE, the state Division of Human Rights, and the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations.

It would also have some teeth when conducting an investigation. According to the legislation, the commission would be able to issue subpoenas, call witnesses to testify, and administer oaths. Its decisions will also be made public and its investigations would be subject to the state’s freedom of information laws.

There are a few snags with the legislation. For one, it has to pass the Legislature twice and then be approved by voters at some point in 2021 at the earliest. Constitutional amendments have to be passed by the current Legislature and the next sitting Legislature before they are placed on the ballot for voters. The earliest the commission would be enacted is at the start of 2022.

Cornelius Murray, a shareholder at O’Connell & Aronowitz in Albany who supports the legislation, said enacting it through a constitutional amendment is important because it would allow the state’s residents to decide whether the idea should become law or stay on the shelf.

“I think there’s a real crisis of conscience within the electorate,” Murray said. “They definitely need ethics reform and they need to do it in a constitutional fashion where the people, rather than the legislators, ultimately make up their mind about what’s needed.”

The other setback is the Legislature itself. A majority of Democrats have not signed onto the bill in either chamber, meaning its chances of making it to the floor for a vote are unlikely at the moment. Krueger said they plan to continue advocating for the proposal throughout this year’s legislative session.

“We’re going to keep pushing to get more and more support as I work with and urge my leadership to bring this to a floor for a vote,” Krueger said.

The first day of the legislative session is scheduled for Wednesday.

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