Wednesday, September 28, 2011

No More Gotcha Games

The governor and the legislative leaders are having a hard time finding people willing to serve on the new integrity panel. And it’s no wonder why. The last panel, the Commission on Public Integrity, ruined several careers and tarnished others. (See Feerick, Teitelbaum, Cherkasky and Ginsburg.)

This is a difficult situation for the governor and the leaders. They want people who have solid reputations for integrity, but they also want people who are sensible and won’t engage in the kind of gotcha games for which the old panel was famous. (Remember the ridiculous hors d’ourves decision?)

The answer? Change the focus and change the people.

First, it is not necessary nor desirable that everyone on the new panel be a lawyer. Having some smart people from other walks of life, including former journalists and public officials, would be an improvement.

In this regard, I believe the new panel should actually be more journalistic than prosecutorial.
The old panel was set up by Spitzer as a Star Chamber. The commissioners were empowered to pass judgment on people and that’s what they did. There were no evidentiary standards, and no real recourse for anyone to challenge the system.
One minute the commissioners were throwing the book at someone for trivial offenses and the next they were looking the other way or worse tipping off the targets. They did it all in private, and they didn’t have to explain themselves.
All of that must change.

Maybe that was the product of a commission made up of former prosecutors and staffed by lawyers that wanted to be prosecutors. I’ve never been a prosecutor nor would I have the first idea how to be one but the old lobby commission did just fine with commissioners who were not lawyers much less prosecutors. It worked because they had a wide diversity of experience and for most of them a commitment to do what was right.

The new panel should strive for better and conduct almost all of its activities in the open. Investigations should be conducted privately, but they are only a small part of the larger mission of information collection and publication. The panel should publish all of its data and findings in real time and on the web.

This was another problem with the old commission. It supposedly looked into matters, but often never said what it found. And after it was revealed to have leaked information to the governor’s office about an inquiry, every action by the commission was suspect.

Instead of trying to be integrity G-men the new panel should focus on building a staff of motivated individuals that understand the value of information, how to get it and what to do with it. The best integrity officials let the facts speak for themselves, and there is always plain logic to their actions – not suspense or intrigue or surprise. The best integrity officials do not play gotcha games.

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