Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Grading the Watchdogs

Summer vacation is over and the Labor Day weekend is past. Now it’s time to get back to work in earnest. But first, we should take stock of everyone’s performance during the last political cycle in Albany. I’m not talking about politicians, but the people who are supposed to monitor the politicians.

Let’s start with the good government groups. I love my goo-goo friends, but, honestly, they just haven’t been the same since Blair Horner departed. Blair was their Pope, Rabbi, Sachem and Guru. Without him, they lack direction and cohesiveness. Case in point: The state is currently without any ethics enforcement capability thanks to the continuing failure of the Governor and leaders to appoint commissioners to a new ethics panel. The response from the groups: Silence from some, and from others a soothing “Don’t worry. Self policing works.”

Let’s turn to the Fourth Estate. There is only one word to describe the LCA – jaded. Reporters rely on the public officials they cover to make their jobs easier by providing them leads and story ideas. The end result is the media is afraid to bite the hand that feeds them. As a result, the unbiased truth resulting from honest investigative journalism has become a rare treat.

Now let’s consider the official watchdogs one by one:
The Feds: Yes, they are plodding. Yes, the Bruno case got complicated. Yes, when it comes to information they eat like elephants and crap like mice, but they are the only real cops in town. The Kruger/Boyland/Seminerio/Leibell cases and the AEG case are evidence of that.

The Attorney General: He hasn't come roaring out of the gate. But neither did Spitzer or Cuomo. Casework being done now will result in headlines next year. So it’s really too early to tell. That said, I’d like to see Eric Schneiderman be more visible and more aggressive in using the bully pulpit.

The Comptroller: Everyone I know regards Tom Dinapoli as a kind and decent man, but no one I know regards him as aggressive. His integrity unit has had personal integrity problems of their own. There is a tremendous opportunity to be an ethics watchdog in this office but it has gone unutilized. The office reflects the man who occupies it.

The State Inspector General: Something tells me she's not Joe Fisch in a dress, but, again, it is too early to tell. She needs time to prove herself. I do have this major personal issue with the way she is being repeatedly characterized in the media as a former top staffer and close aide to the governor. If I were her and saw a characterization like that, I would call an immediate news conference to say the following: “I want you all to know that my former association with the Governor means absolutely nothing. My obligation is to the people of New York and if I find evidence of wrongdoing I will pursue it relentlessly no matter where it leads.” And then I’d back it up with actions.

COPI: What can I say that I haven’t said already many times. Oh wait, how about this: I recently received a tip that at least one member of the commission may have been acting a lobbyist while still serving on the commission. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if it is. From the beginning, this commission has made a mockery of ethics enforcement. They gave us the dubious distinction of being the only ethics panel in the nation to be cited for unethical conduct by not one but two law enforcement officials. (I’ll also be keeping a close eye on where Barry Ginsberg lands. If the Cuomo administration provides him a soft landing, one would have to question if it was a quid pro quo for his prior work on integrity issues related to the governor’s close friends and confidants.) And while I’m thinking about COPI, can someone explain how they are still performing audits when the new bill prohibited any investigatory action? I wondered why the auditors were not laid off. This is a complete waste of state resources.

This brings me to me. How should I be graded in my role as a watchdog and advocate for ethics in government? Well, perhaps you’ll give me a small amount of credit for speaking my mind. Not enough people are willing to do that nowadays, especially with regard to the new administration. I also think it can be fairly said that I’m an equal-opportunity critic (some say crank). I play no favorites. I don’t believe that ethics is a partisan issue. This said, I feel as though I’ve failed in an important respect. I just haven’t been able to get enough people to care, to really and truly care, about ethics. Despite my best efforts, there’s no sense of outrage at the abuses that have occurred and are still occurring. In fact, a lot of people, including many reporters, just yawn. Perhaps my fixation on getting rid of COPI and its leaders caused me to take my eye off the ball. Alas, if nothing else, I’m stubborn and I will continue to try to change this unhealthy situation.

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