Wednesday, June 20, 2012

It's a chicken and an egg thing

From Spano to DiFiore … or Stop and Frisk This

I’m going to take note of some recent developments and make a point or two.

Start with Nicky Spano, who was sentenced yesterday for tax evasion. Spano joins the list of fallen NY pols: Seabrook, Bruno, Espada, Kruger, Monserrate, Norman, McLaughlin, Gordon, Davis, Seminerio, Hevesi, Spitzer, yada yada (I’d hate to leave anyone out).

That’s an awfully long list, and I wonder what effect reciting those names has on people? Are there any sympathies here?

There are some who think Spano’s punishment was severe – a year and a day for a charge that is usually met with a fine and community service.

Some thought Hevesi’s recent denial of parole – for doing what comptroller’s always did? -- was too harsh.

Some insist Bruno (he did soooo much for the community they even named a baseball park after him) is innocent.

There are even a few Spitzer defenders left.

Alas, I don’t share these sentiments. I’m not without compassion, but I continue to believe that people in power need to be held not to some super high standard, but to a high-enough standard that makes it clear that they didn’t get special treatment. Hold that thought.

I’m also one who believes that the people doing the prosecuting need to be scrutinized as well. And this suggestion always gets the folks in the legal community agitated. But think about it: We evaluate everyone nowadays. Why should enforcers of the laws be different?

The answer most often given is that raising questions about the integrity and performance of law enforcement personnel can undermine their credibility and undermine respect for the law itself. To that I say: BS. Its incompetence, corruption and excessive secrecy that undermine integrity, not the act of reviewing performance.

Consider teacher evaluations. Does it compromise the teaching profession to conduct teacher evaluations? I don’t think so. It might even elevate the profession if the evaluations helped weed out those who shouldn’t be teaching.

Does it undermine the cops to conduct a review of policies such as stop and frisk? I don’t think so. In fact, it might help the cops to have people understand the underpinning of (effective) law enforcement techniques.

By extension, is it a bad thing to cast a critical eye toward ethics officials? Hell no, I say. Not if it’s done in a fair way.

I doubt if anyone would disagree with me on the basic point that the conduct of such officials should be monitored closely. The problem only arises when the resulting criticism is too harsh or too personal, they say.

By this theory it’s good to review the enforcers of ethics law, but only gentle, private criticism is allowed. And by this theory, the rogue pols in the list above would have all got slaps on the wrist.

But what if the people involved in ethics enforcement are doing bad things – like leaking information to potential targets of a probe? Or leaking information to the media in the middle of a probe? Or ignoring core responsibilities in favor of headline grabbing probes where jurisdiction is questionable?

What’s the proper response to all that? Well, I certainly don’t think the answer is looking the other way.

Let me make a brief digression here. The record should note that I gave JCOPE a long grace period in which I refrained from criticism. I gave them the benefit of the doubt again and again. I defended its executive director for a long time – often to the dismay of people in the media who thought I’d somehow sold out. But now I’ve seen enough to know that this organization isn’t functioning properly and, in fact, is going in the wrong direction, which is why I call it JJOKE (with a tip of the hat to Ken Lovett for coining the phrase).

Scrutiny of JJOKE is warranted. Intense scrutiny.  Sharp, pointed scrutiny. But it isn’t criticism for criticism’s sake. This isn’t about undermining the integrity of the organization or the people involved. It’s about restoring it.

In the same way we need to hold pols to account, we need to hold those charged with enforcing ethics laws to account. Not doing so only grows the list of failed ethics panels, and hollow commitments made by elected officials and good government groups to changing things.

The best way to stop the growing list of disgraced corrupt public officials is to stop the growing list of disgraced corrupt ethics agencies in New York.  It’s a chicken and an egg thing I guess.

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