Ethics panel launches probe

Karen Dewitt
September 10, 2012

A unanimous state ethics board appears to launch  a full investigation into the Assembly’s sexual harassment scandal.   The vote followed an acrimonious meeting , where commissioners appointed by the Assembly Speaker demanded a public discussion of the deliberations, and called Governor Cuomo’s threats to open a Moreland Act investigation “coercive." 

Following a private session, Joint Commission on Public Ethics Chair Janet DiFiore announced the results of a vote on whether to launch a “full investigation”.

“The commission  unanimously voted today to commence a substantial basis investigation,” DiFiore said.

The second set of proceedings in less than a week come after Governor Andrew Cuomo, among others, called on the ethics panel to investigate a sexual harassment scandal that centered on Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who was censured by an assembly committee over alleged sexual harassment charges. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver also approved a secret settlement to pay over $100,000 to other alleged victims of Lopez.

Following the first meeting, on September 4th,  it was leaked to the New York Times that commissioners had voted to limit the investigation into only the actions of Assemblyman Lopez, and not the confidential settlement that was paid to two former female Lopez staffers. After the Times report, Governor Cuomo said, through a spokesman, if the probe were not widened to include an investigation of the secret settlement, then he would create a Moreland Act Commission to conduct his own investigation.

At Monday’s meeting, appointees of Speaker Silver decried the leaks. Commissioner Marvin Jacob, banging his hand on the table, demanded that any further talks, presumably on whether to widen the investigation, be done in public. 

“I don’t want to leave here again today, open the paper in the morning, and read about what happened in a  closed session that is completely inaccurate,” Jacob complained.

Jacob, who under the ethics panel rules cannot reveal his votes on commission investigations, denied that he had shown any favoritism to Silver, saying   “nobody would come to this table to block anyone”.

And Commissioner Jacob says he finds Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Act Commission threat “coercive”.

Silver appointee Ellen Yaroshefsky, who joined the meeting by Skype, says she finds it “disturbing” to be “muzzled” when what she says are “unfounded rumors”  have led to criticism and “implicit threats”  .

Commissioner Daniel Horwitz, who was appointed by Governor Cuomo, argued against discussing an investigation in public, likening the commission to a grand jury proceeding, and saying it would not be fair to those who are the targets of a probe.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Horwitz,  who said the commission will ultimately be judged by the final outcome of any proceedings.

Most of the other commissioners, the majority appointed by Governor Cuomo, remained silent, but voted against Commissioner Jacob’s motion to discuss the next phase of the investigation in public.

In the end, they agreed that they would at least announce the outcome of their vote. They then met in executive session for nearly two hours, before disclosing the unanimous decision to go ahead with a probe. Under their rules, they are not allowed to even discuss the subject of the investigation.

Commissioner Mary Lou Rath, who was appointed by Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, partially sided with the Democratic legislative appointees, saying she wanted to explain her vote after the private meeting had taken place.   

But afterwards, Rath, a former State Senator, said she had recalled that under penalty of law, she could not talk about her vote after all. It’s a misdemeanor for commissioners to discuss whether they approve or reject investigations.

“I was reminded that by law I am responsible to remain silent,” said Rath, “And so I shall.”

Government reform groups have called the apparent probe into the Assembly’s sexual harassment scandal the ethic panel’s first real test, and commissioners seemed aware of that.  Rath says she has “complete hope and faith” in the ethics panel’s ability to function, and that there are no “hidden agendas” . But Commissioner Jacob expressed a more pessimistic view, saying without more public disclosure “ this whole experiment is going to fall apart."

“We’ve already lost one commissioner,” said  Jacob,  who says other commissioners have indicated that "they don’t need the aggravation."

The commissioner appointed by Senate Democrats, Ravi Batra, resigned over the weekend, saying he’d asked the FBI to investigate the inner workings of the ethics commission.