Cuomo appointee to police Cuomo administration

photo: courtesy ig.state.ny.us

     ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - State Inspector General Ellen Biben who served in several roles for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was appointed Thursday to police ethics in the Cuomo administration and the Legislature and to regulate lobbying.

     The Joint Commission on Public Ethics announced Thursday that it chose Biben for the $148,000-a-year job with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

     "I am honored to accept the position of executive director of JCOPE, and I look forward to assisting the commission in its critical mission of restoring ethics and public trust in government," Biben said in a statement issued by the commission.

     She will resign from the inspector general's job to which Cuomo appointed her last year. She also worked for Cuomo as head of his public integrity unit when he was attorney general, where she led the probe of the pay-to-play scandal under then-Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Democrat. She had also spent more than 10 years as an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney's office.

     "I think it's a superb appointment," said David Grandeau, the state's former lobbying enforcer who has been critical of the ethics board and its predecessor, the Commission on Public Integrity. "She's talented, competent, aggressive and fair."

     The ethics board announced the decision in a press release, not saying when the "overwhelming" vote of the commission was taken or if there were votes against Biben. The board chooses not to follow the state Open Meetings Law.

     "She's a great pick," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters. "We have been concerned that the Joint Commission on Public Ethics has not been able to move forward and they have all these cases that languished ... she certainly made a name for herself during the Hevesi investigation."

     Hevesi is serving a prison sentence for a scheme that involved payments to politically connected intermediaries for companies seeking investments from the massive pension fund for state and local government employees.

     The case led to laws aimed at ending political considerations in the investment decisions of the fund.

     Bartoletti said the League of Women Voters discussed Biben's history of appointments by Cuomo, but "at this point we're willing to give her the benefit of a doubt. She's been independent as inspector general." She said the group is pleased that a backlog of hundreds of cases will now be investigated.

     Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto dismissed any concern about a potential conflict of interest. He called Biben "the most successful public integrity prosecutor in modern political history."

     Ethics investigations halted after Cuomo dissolved the former Commission on Public Integrity last summer.

     The inspector general's office also investigated allegations of misconduct in the executive branch.

     Commission Chairwoman Janet DiFiore said many candidates were reviewed, but she wouldn't say how many, or if any others were interviewed.

     "Ellen's reputation as a tough and independent defender of public integrity has been demonstrated throughout her career," said DiFiore, the Westchester County district attorney.

     She is one of Cuomo's six appointees to the 14-member commission. Eight are appointed by legislative leaders, four of whom are Democrats and four Republicans.

     No meeting was announced publicly and the appointment wasn't discussed publicly at the board's meeting on Tuesday. After it was revealed in news reports that their first meeting was held in secret in December, DiFiore said the powerful commission chooses not to follow the state Open Meetings Law, but will follow its
"spirit."

     The law requires most government bodies to operate publicly when hiring, otherwise spending tax dollars and setting policy. There are exceptions, such as discussing personnel and a few other sensitive matters, such as real estate sales. Fiore has cited a provision of executive law that allows the powerful ethics board to act in unannounced, closed-door meetings and deny release of public records under the state Freedom of Information Law.

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