Friday, December 16, 2011

JCOPE Day 4: Secret Meetings and Gag Orders?

This is becoming a storyline. Another day; another set of strange and disconcerting actions by JCOPE.

I’m the one who insisted that JCOPE be given some time and the benefit of doubt, but now I’m having my doubts.

As Mike Gormley reports today, JCOPE held a secret meeting. And ever since that AP story moved, I’ve been inundated with insider tips about what happened. I’ll get to the details in a minute, but first, why is JCOPE having secret meetings? Is this the way to start the tenure – with less transparency than the previous ethics commission?

And while we’re at it, was it appropriate for an employee of the Westchester County DA’s office, presumably Ms. DiFiore’s secretary, to arrange the meeting? Apparently, this individual sent around an email to commissioners to arrange a conference call.

While this might not seem like a huge deal, just think about the consequences moving forward. You can bet there’ll be a case in upcoming months in which a government employee is accused of misuse of public resources. Deputy Commissioner X will be called to account for his actions in directing his secretary to arrange a teleconference call for his friends who are part of a fantasy baseball league.

Guess what? The law does not distinguish between an activity like this and the arranging of a JCOPE meeting. Both activities are unrelated to the secretary’s official duties and the person who ordered her to do non-official work might be in violation of the law.

Now back to the details of the meeting as related to me by anonymous insider tips and published reports:

In a bizarre exchange, the Chair apparently tried to get the commissioners to authorize her to act on their behalf. The only problem: She wouldn’t tell the commissioners what the issue was or provide any details of why it was necessary. Other commissioners were put off, and they rightfully refused the request.

It apparently went downhill from there. The chair then notified the other commissioners that she and her spokesperson would speak for the commission – no one else. This, too, went over like a lead balloon. In this regard, the appointees of other branches of government cannot be gagged by such a directive from the governor’s appointee. In addition to violating the spirit of openness, this is wrong and cannot be enforced. Politically it is tone deaf, the last thing I would think the governor’s office would want is the inevitable comparison to how Spitzer ran COPI.

It’s hard to imagine what the new chair could possibly be thinking with these two actions. It’s been reported she’s getting advice from Barry Ginsberg who reportedly also participated in the call and after the fact acted as JCOPE’s spokesperson. You know my opinion of Barry’s coup de tat of JCOPE. And you can’t unring the bell by having him resign at the end of the payroll period; he doesn’t have a position to resign from.

If all of this wasn’t enough, it’s been reported that the JCOPE Chair used her Westchester County DA’s public information officer to answer reporters’ questions about the JCOPE meeting. As noted above, JCOPE activities have nothing to do with DA office work.

As I said yesterday, this is not a good start for JCOPE. And it’s getting worse. These aren’t just rookie mistakes. These are serious problems that show a total lack of understanding of ethics law enforcement.

I want JCOPE to succeed, I’m rooting for the chairwomen to do for JCOPE what she has done for her constituents in Westchester County, and I know there are solid people on this commission, but . . .

Somebody needs to do an intervention, and quick.

As Justice Potter Stewart said "ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do"

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