Thursday, February 9, 2012

So, Now What?

At long last, JCOPE is ready to rock n roll.

Ms. Biben is aboard. She knows this town in ways that Ms. DiFiore does not. She’s also much more attuned to appearances than Ms. DiFiore. (Hopefully, she will use the parking garage right across the street.)

Under Ms. Biben’s leadership, JCOPE can now start the process of becoming truly operational.

Well, almost… First, there’s the matter of staffing. Ms. Biben can’t do much with a skeleton crew and no investigators. She can’t do an adequate job of reviewing complaints that have been filed. She can’t respond to requests for opinions, settle cases or consider the tips that have amassed over the last several years.

But one has to believe that she has the ability, given her stature in the legal community and standing with the Cuomo administration, to quickly add qualified staff. (Certain PIC retreads are not the way to go. Read the blog entry from June 20, 2011 for more on this.)  But before you staff, think about what you want the new JCOPE to be working on.

And when staffing issues are resolved, then what? Well, the key is prioritizing, and this is where I’d hope the JCOPE commissioners and Ms. Biben have a serious discussion and recognize that their success or failure is NOT entirely dependent on their prosecutorial prowess.

Instead, it depends on their relevance. Now, in this regard, I want to make a recommendation on two specific areas that warrant JCOPE attention.

But first, a note to the smart ass Confessores and Gershmans of the world, who selectively read my blog and see only criticism of ethics officials and the administration: Gentlemen: In my own way, I have always sought to be constructive, especially, initially, with those charged with enforcing ethics laws. I want these officials to succeed. That they continually disappoint is a great source of frustration for me.  That’s one of the key points of my blog.  To the extent you find my commentary one dimensional stop reading the blog or better yet start developing your own reputations for integrity.  I’m comfortable that I’ve walked the walk long enough to voice my opinion.

Now for the recommendation: This is 2012. Influence is wielded differently today that it was in years past. In the bad old days, a lobbyist would meet in a backroom over cigars and cocktails with a politician and make a deal that went something like this: “If you block this bill for us, we’ll make sure your campaign coffers will overflow.”

Today, thanks to disclosure requirements and campaign finance limits such deals don’t get made so easily or so often.

Today, the game is played differently. What happens now is that “special interests,” which range from the totally righteous to the really unseemly, have to work a lot harder. They have to build coalitions, organize at the grassroots level, poll, run media campaigns, and win public support in order to advance their agenda. And if they want to “rent” a lawmaker, then they have to bundle contributions.

By the way I started talking about this 10 years ago when I was still running the old Lobby Commission, does anyone remember the hip hoppers and helicopter investigation?

I don’t have a problem with the first part of that equation. As a First Amendment guy, I’d even say its people’s right to run such campaigns to influence public policy. That said, I think there ought to be greater disclosure by those involved in such efforts, and a specific effort by JCOPE to review their campaign-style activities to ensure compliance with all existing laws.

With regard to the second part of the equation, I think JCOPE ought to be proactive in investigating bundling*. I think this is the area that really violates the spirit of campaign finance law and perverts our system of governance.

Another note to the snarky Mr. C and G: Yeah, I think the administration should face the same scrutiny as everyone else. Of course, the Committee to Save New York should be reviewed, and, of course, the Governor’s remarkably successful fund raising operation should be looked at. I don’t know that they’ve done anything wrong, I, frankly, doubt it, but that doesn’t mean there should not be a thorough review.

There is definitely a new way of doing things in New York and other states, too. Lobbying campaigns are more like election-style campaigns. At the same time, more money than ever is being raised by political candidates, in part through bundling.

If JCOPE commissioners want relevance, and want to do something that is both timely and in the public interest, they’d look into these two areas.

* Of course, the challenge for JCOPE is that it has no express authority to investigate matters related to campaign finance. One can look at this in two ways: One way is to throw up your hands and say: “Yup, never mind.” Or, one could find a jurisdictional hook or some way to shine a light on the problem, if only by writing a report. Think about it this way: PIC could weigh in on hors d’ouvres being a potential way to influence lawmakers, but JCOPE can’t opine on perhaps the greatest influence scam of our day – bundling? Go figure.  Here’s an unsolicitated thought, JCOPE could investigate the members of the Board of Elections for a potential violation of the Public Officers Law section 74 (h) related to bundling, wow wouldn’t that be something to see. 

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