Monday, April 23, 2012

Lessons on Independence

Until now, Herb Teitelbaum was, hands down, the person who had done the most to undermine public integrity in New York.

Teitelbaum is the arrogant former head of the state Public Integrity Commission who was bounced unceremoniously after it was revealed that he leaked confidential information in the Troopergate case to his friends in the Spitzer administration. According to the state IG, Teitelbaum violated the law, but he was allowed to slink away and avoid charges.

He comes out from under his rock occasionally for society events in New York City and recently was seen at JCOPE offices. (Doing what nobody seems to know.)

Teitelbaum still holds the title of ultimate anti-ethicist, but now he has real competition from former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who is the subject of a grand jury report in Newsday.

According to the report, Levy used his county ethics commission “as a political sword, to attack enemies … and as a political shield to authorize questionable conduct...”

That conduct apparently included driving business to companies owned by his wife.

Yours truly is quoted in this article making the overarching point that anytime you have an ethics panel dominated by political forces it is a recipe for disaster.

You might say: Duh! But again and again, we in New York make the same mistake. We set up compliance structures that are staffed by the friends and associates of people in power. Despite glaring examples of the taint on such arrangements, we keep doing it.

Dial back to 07. Spitzer was absolutely convinced that he was going to do ethics better than the former state Ethics Commission and former Lobbying Commission that I headed. So, he set up the Public Integrity Commission and stocked it with people he knew, including social friends and former top aides. Yeah, they all had stellar resumes. But they were an embarrassment. The commission acted in secrecy and arbitrarily. Its members were revealed to have multiple conflicts of interest. And you always wondered whether the fix was in on everything they did.

In 2010, a new governor with the best of intentions created a new structure. JCOPE is supposed to be different. And I want to believe it will be different. I certainly hope it will be. But a similar dynamic is in place – the people on the commission and those running it are linked to the administration and also linked to the legislature.

Yes, they are first-rate professionals. Yes, they have stellar prosecutorial credentials. Yes, they have glaring examples of what not to do from their predecessors, but…

The “but” is the great difficulty that people have in being appropriately skeptical of individuals who were former colleagues and who continue to be friends. Even the most honorable, diligent and conscientious person is going to have a problem with that.

I will keep warning about this. It’s all about independence. The members of an ethics panel must stand apart from the political world.

Teitelbaum and Levy are egregious examples of what happens when there isn’t sufficient independence. Let’s hope JCOPE gets that point.
There are a couple of potential hot potato investigations just waiting to blow up.  Lets see how JCOPE handles them it should tell us if we need to add names to the Teitelbaum/Levy wall of shame.

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