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There's Appetite In Albany For An Ethics Overhaul And It Could Start This Year

NEW YORK NOW - State lawmakers in New York could take the first step this year toward scrapping the state’s current ethics agencies and replacing them with a new, more powerful panel less likely to be influenced by elected officials.

Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, said in an interview on New York NOW that there’s appetite in the state Legislature for an ethics overhaul in Albany, and that it could start this year.

And that’s partly due to the multiple controversies surrounding Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Krueger said. Cuomo has been accused in recent months of sexual harassment by several former and current staffers, and mishandling data related to nursing homes during COVID-19.

“I do think there’s an appetite because there’s a realization with all the exposés involving the governor and his staff that we don’t have any mechanism to really bring these complaints to, or to do follow through,” Krueger said.

Cuomo has denied touching anyone inappropriately, both at the office and outside state government, and has defended his administration’s handling of nursing homes.

He’s currently the subject of a broad impeachment investigation by the State Assembly, and Attorney General Letitia James has also opened an inquiry into the sexual harassment claims. The state’s ethics agencies have not said publicly if they’re doing the same.

Cuomo has also been accused, in recent days, of using state personnel and resources to work on the book he wrote and published last year. He has denied the claims, which have now been referred to James for a potential criminal investigation.

The situation has reignited the conversation in Albany over enforcement of the state’s ethics laws, and whether the entities that already exist have been effective.

Krueger has sponsored legislation for the last few years that would enshrine a new commission in the state constitution that would handle matters of public ethics and government integrity. Basically, it would investigate claims of corruption and misconduct.

That commission would have broader power than what’s currently granted to the state’s two main ethics panels — the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Legislative Ethics Commission — and she intends for it to cover more ground as well.

“We need to make sure that this is broader than the Public Officers Law,” Kruger said. “It’s very hard to follow through on sexual harassment in the context of the Public Officers Law because it was never designed to address that issue.”

It would also be structurally different from the state’s current ethics agencies. While Cuomo and the state Legislature appoint the members of JCOPE, for example, members of Krueger’s commission would be primarily selected by state court officials.

The measure has failed to gain support in the Legislature, but Krueger said she’s cautiously optimistic that it could move forward this year.

The legislation isn’t like every other bill introduced and passed by the state Legislature. The process for amending the state constitution takes longer and requires approval from voters.

A constitutional amendment in New York has to be passed by both chambers of the state Legislature, which then has to approve it a second time after a new class of lawmakers is sworn in following an election. Then, it goes on the ballot for voters to approve.

It’s confusing, but essentially, the Legislature has to pass it twice, and the second time has to be done by a newly elected set of lawmakers. It’s then placed on the ballot.

Krueger said she’s reviewing the legislation with lawyers in the Senate now, and that a new version of the bill could be introduced and voted on in the coming weeks. That would be its first passage in the process of becoming a constitutional amendment.

“We are probably introducing a new draft in both houses, and I’m cautiously optimistic that we might be able to get first passage in both houses,” Krueger said.

Second passage would have to happen after a new set of lawmakers takes office in 2023, meaning the measure wouldn’t end up on the ballot until later that year, at the earliest.