Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Cuomo could learn from Spitzer

We are closing in on the end of the Commission on Public Integrity. (See our handy, dandy count-down clock at the top of the page.)

There’s never been a more ironically named entity. In fact, I think that history might record this experiment in ethics enforcement as the single worst idea of Eliot Spitzer.

Yeah, I think it is actually more egregious than using the state airplane to travel to Washington to bump uglies with a whore.

Think about it. Spitzer’s downfall was a lesson in what? Hubris? Probity? Morality?

Oh, come on. That’s a lot of after-the-fact, holier-than-thou BS.

Spitzer could have survived his sexual indiscretion if he had people willing to defend him. But in the end, he had nobody. He had alienated too many people with too many ill-conceived actions.

This includes me. I lost respect for Spitzer in early 2007. Why? There were functioning state ethics and lobbying panels in early 2007. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was more than passable. In fact, I like to believe that, while I was in charge, there was aggressive and independent enforcement of lobbying laws.

But then Spitzer ushered in the era of Feerick, Teitelbaum and Ginsburg. A short while later New York was a national joke regarding ethics and lobbying enforcement.

Only in New York could a state Commission on Public Integrity become the subject of a scathing report by the state Inspector General for repeated breaches of public integrity.

That was ’08. Fast forward to today, Feerick and Teitelbaum are gone in disgrace, but the third Musketeer is still at it. That’s right, Barry Ginsberg, cited in the Inspector General’s report for his Troopergate transgressions, is carrying on Spitzer’s ethics legacy.

Get this: Since the governor signed legislation abolishing the commission and placing a stop work order on all investigations, discipline and opinions, Barry and the remaining staff have been thumbing their noses at everyone.

Without any authority to do so, they’ve continued actions like auditing lobbyists. They are sending threatening letters and emails to people demanding that they comply with their directives. The only problem, again, is that Barry has no authority. The commission is supposed to be engaged in ministerial duties only -- not enforcement activities.

I know for a fact that Barry and his crew are engaged in such activities because they’ve been harassing some of my clients.

Sooooo, what should be done now? Well, this is Governor Cuomo’s watch, and he needs to do two things.

First, he ought to slam dunk Barry. Enough of his rogue activity. COPI has no authority to act, so Ginsburg’s activities must stop.  And any thoughts of providing Barry a soft landing should be shelved, the appearance would be one of buying his silence, let him talk after all what could he say?  That he failed to fulfill his responsibilities?

Second, Cuomo needs to understand the Spitzer lesson. (No, not that lesson.) He needs to fully comprehend that he is responsible for ethics and lobbying enforcement. It’s his legislation, his panel. As such, it is imperative that he picks the right people to staff it, and the right people to sit on the board.

And I know the Governor and the Legislature want to coordinate the naming of their respective appointees to the new panel.  But learn from the past, having a big press conference and ceremonial first meeting like Spitzer, Feerick and Teitelbaum did will not solve the problem.  It only provides video footage that the media can run every time there is a story about the latest scandal involving the appointees.  There is a lot of work to be done in a very short period of time (has anyone thought of what you need to do to build a new agency?) Pick some normal, non lawyer, non controllable ordinary citizens to be commissioners, find a fearless aggressive leader to appoint as the Executive Director and then take the moral high ground and hold them accountable to one commonsense standard of “do the right thing”.

As much as I’ve been pressing for action to constitute a new panel, I know that it has to be done right. Hopefully, the governor will appoint qualified people who are truly independent.

Fail to do that governor and you will repeat the Spitzer experience.

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