Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Typical Tuesday at the Capitol

Yesterday was a typical day at the State Capitol for this time of year.
There were multiple news conferences on fracking. There were 500 education advocates demonstrating in the stairways. Gaming company representatives were making the rounds on the second and third floors. And, there was a contentious LATFOR meeting.
These four matters – fracking, education funding, casino gaming and redistricting – are this year’s hot button issues. Forces on all sides are engaging in lobbying these issues, and they are doing so aggressively.
Here’s what I’d being doing right now if I was still the ED at the old Lobbying Commission: I’d be reviewing everyone’s lobby registration related to these issues. Well I wouldn’t be doing it personally (unless I had a hunch or the parties involved were too hot to touch) but staff would be. I would want to make sure that if an organization was engaged in lobbying that it was properly registered and abiding by all relevant disclosure requirements.
Some might think that proactively checking everyone’s status is some kind of gotcha game. Yes and no.
The truth is that if I found a party hadn’t bothered to properly register because they were too lazy, arrogant or downright corrupt; I really enjoyed commencing a full blown investigation, which usually found other related violations. I still feel that way but now I only do it for clients not for altruistic motives.
But if I found that the “Church Ladies Coalition to Save the Magnolia Trees in Pleasant Park” wasn’t properly registered because they didn’t know the law, the commission would typically give them an opportunity (and sometimes actually helped) rectify the problem.
This kind of calibration hasn’t always been applied by ethics officials in New York. We’ve had extremes of hyper-technical interpretation of rules and too many examples of a look-the-other-way approach.
What will it be with JCOPE? Even though there’s no executive director at the commission yet, it’s imperative that the existing staff proactively review lobbying activities.
Take fracking: There’s a high stakes competition underway between environmental groups and gas companies. Everyone is busy building coalitions of people to influence officials. They are all doing news conferences. In fact, there were five dueling news conferences on fracking on Tuesday.
In a competitive situation like this, someone will skirt the rules. You can bet on it.
JCOPE needs to get in the game on this issue and others. It needs to be aggressively checking up on people who are involved. It needs to be smart about how it reacts. Unfortunately it has stumbled out of the gate. The acting executive director is overwhelmed with a backlog of cases and unable to focus on building a new agency let alone start stabilizing the existing one. It’s gotten so bad that she is personally sending out audit letters rather than delegating to the audit staff. Why? I can’t tell you it’s a mystery. Whoever was in charge of making decisions regarding administrative issues during the transition has not just stumbled but has fallen and cannot get up. The new website domain for JCOPE is experiencing compatibility issues and a filing deadline is fast approaching. Why they didn’t wait until after the filing deadline is a mystery. No employees have been hired by JCOPE, the existing workforce is in limbo awaiting their fate, not a great way to build employee morale in an agency that has been rocked by past blunders. Anyone that has received a letter from JCOPE should notice that the signatory has no title, that’s because no one is being allowed to use titles, why? I can’t tell you it’s a mystery.
So while there is real work that needs to occur JCOPE is distracted. But there is a meeting wednesday at 10:30 am maybe some questions can start being answered. One thing I know for sure is that JCOPE, like PIC before them, is diligent about getting that catered lunch. Deb Novak ordered it before she ever got around to sending out a public notice for the meeting, after all in times like these you have to get your priorities straight.

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