Gov. Hochul starts strong with emphasis on ethics, transparency
Gov. Kathy Hochul took office on Aug. 25, promising New Yorkers she will change the culture of secrecy and unethical behavior in Albany and restore the public’s trust in state government. We look forward to concrete actions to back up those words.
After all, Andrew Cuomo said the same thing when he took office 10 years ago. We all know how that ended.
Hochul is starting off on the right foot. In her first address as governor, Hochul said her No. 1 priority is managing the COVID-19 pandemic, getting kids back to school safely and distributing vaccine booster shots when approved.
Ethics also are a high priority. After the Cuomo scandal, the governor pledged to create a new culture of accountability. On the enforcement side, she can create independent watchdogs that are not beholden to the state’s political leaders.
The governor also promised “a new era of transparency” in her administration.
In that spirit, one of Hochul’s first acts as governor was to change the way the state reports deaths from COVID-19. Under Cuomo, the state’s official death toll reported COVID deaths confirmed by a lab. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts both confirmed and suspected COVID deaths. The change bumped New York’s death count up by 12,000, to roughly 55,400. The Cuomo administration reported the higher number but emphasized the lower one in daily communications and briefings. New Yorkers now have a fuller picture of the pandemic’s toll.
Hochul said she would issue an executive order mandating in-person ethics and sexual harassment training for all state employees. The ethics training is new. Sexual harassment training was mandated by Cuomo (no small irony there) but it was offered online and thus vulnerable to cheating. Not anymore.
Hochul also directed her counsel to expedite all Freedom of Information Law requests as quickly as possible. The Cuomo administration was notorious for sitting on FOIL requests for months, even years, openly flouting the letter and spirit of the law and keeping vital information out of public view. The governor also will order state agencies to review their compliance with open government laws and to publicly report their findings.
Next, Hochul must do something about the state’s weak ethics police.
She and the state Legislature should scrap the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and replace it with an independent watchdog that will bark.
JCOPE allowed Cuomo to make a $5 million COVID book deal without even a vote of the commission — a decision it is reconsidering now that Cuomo is out of power. That alone speaks volumes about the former governor’s sway.
JCOPE also voted Thursday to allow the state Attorney General to investigate a leak of confidential information to Cuomo about his longtime associate Joe Percoco — who is now in jail for taking bribes. The state Inspector General, an anti-corruption investigator appointed by the governor, already decided there was nothing improper there. But she never even interviewed key players, including Cuomo.
Remember, it fell to former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to make corruption cases against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. And it took Attorney General Letitia James to uncover the real number of nursing home deaths from COVID and to investigate the sexual harassment allegations that led to Cuomo’s resignation.
The AG also could be part of the solution to corruption in Albany.
Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick was co-chair of Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on Public Corruption. The commission is back in the news as another victim of the former governor’s bullying tactics. Fitzpatrick says Cuomo’s inner circle tried, and failed, to meddle in the commission’s investigations. Cuomo disbanded it before it could issue a final report.
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