New York’s inspector general is expected to look into claims that inside information from the state ethics commission was leaked to reporters as the panel investigates a sexual harassment scandal in the Assembly.
Under the law that created the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, claims of press leaks from commissioners or staff are automatically referred to the inspector general. The office of Acting Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott would not comment Thursday. It is policy to confirm an investigation only when the office issues a report of findings.
News media have recently reported that the commission held closed-door discussions on whether to investigate the Assembly case and some news reports have questioned whether legislative appointees would use their veto power to limit the investigation’s scope to exclude a $103,000 private settlement approved by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Other press reports said the commission issued subpoenas.
JCOPE has not publicly confirmed it is investigating or has issued subpoenas. But the state Comptroller’s Office on Wednesday said it has received subpoenas from the commission.
Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez of Brooklyn, once a powerful political leader in the borough, was accused of sexual harassment by two women staffers who were parties to the settlement, according to state records obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law.
The once undisclosed settlement was approved in June by Silver. More accusations against Lopez by two other women staffers followed in July. In addressing the July complaint, the Assembly ethics committee censured Lopez on Aug. 24 and Silver took away his committee chairmanship and stipend and other perks of leadership.
Several JCOPE commissioners, including all three of the Democratic speaker’s appointees, complained during a Monday meeting about what they said were leaks of inaccurate information regarding their votes and discussions behind closed doors the previous week.
Without stopping press leaks in the 10-month old JCOPE, “I think the whole experiment is going to fall apart. One commissioner has already resigned and others feel they don’t need the aggravation,” said Commissioner Marvin Jacob, a retired lawyer appointed by Silver.
“I, likewise, was troubled by the press reports,” said Commissioner Patrick Bulgaro, a former government administrator appointed by Silver.
The state’s former lobbying regulator, David Grandeau, who now represents private clients before JCOPE, said an investigation of leaks is necessary, but he doubts it will amount to any significant findings.
He noted that five of the top seven JCOPE staffers previously worked as lawyers and investigators for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who also appoints the inspector general. JCOPE’s executive director, Ellen Biben, was the inspector general before joining JCOPE months ago.
“How is the inspector general going to investigate the executive branch when they work for the executive branch,” Grandeau said Thursday.
JCOPE commissioners said the leaks suggesting they blocked a probe of Silver’s actions were inaccurate. Silver has since said he will not do any future private settlements because government should be more transparent. JCOPE members said the leaks “impugned” their integrity.
Most of JCOPE’s work is done privately or by telephone but commission rules effectively gag members from talking about anything the commission does behind closed doors. The rule violation is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail.
The strict rule was put into law by legislators to protect against leaks and “witch hunts” of public officials before any wrongdoing is proven.
Commissioner Ellen Yaroshefsky, a law professor appointed by Silver, said she was frustrated to “personally be muzzled” in the face of what she said were inaccurate press reports.
JCOPE and a separate criminal probe by Special Prosecutor Dan Donovan are investigating the June settlement, which had input from attorneys from the attorney general’s office and the comptroller’s office. The comptroller’s office approved a voucher, which paid $103,000 in public money to the women accusers in the June settlement.
The offices say Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, both Democrats, never knew of the three drafts of the settlement that were circulated to lawyers in their offices.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.