Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A New Beginning

Ellen Biben begins as state ethics czar today. She’ll be presiding over her very first JCOPE meeting.

I think she’ll do a good job. She is sharp, sincere and, I believe, dedicated to doing the right thing.

Now for the Gershmans and Confessores of the world, please understand this: Yes I am saying affirmative things about her at this point. That’s because I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt at the start of their tenure. I want to see them succeed. (I did the same for others.)

But I happen to think Biben is different from others who served in this position recently. She’s not the least bit arrogant. Nor is she from the Spitzer school of “Do as I say not as I do.” This separates her in my mind from Feerick, Teitelbaum, Cherkasy and Ginsberg.

Another positive sign is the hiring of John Milgrim, who is a savvy press guy. Full disclosure here: I’m a Milgrim fan. I actually tried to hire him as Lobbying Commission spox a long time ago. (The Spitzer crowd at the Lobby Commission put the kybosh on that.)

With Milgrim around, I can’t imagine the commission being so tone deaf and insensitive to appearances. At a minimum, he’ll see to it that someone puts quarters in the parking meter for the chairwoman.

I also doubt that John will be insinuating that state lawmakers are drunks like Walter “Got Scotch” Ayres famously did.

So the Biben era begins, and the key question is this: What will the new direction be?

Well, there are two paths she can take. One is to follow the prosecutorial model. That is, investigate somebody. Here are some easy ones:

1.      Investigate Eliot Spitzer’s use of state resources to travel to Washington DC to have sex with a prostitute. It’s an easy investigation. In fact, the New York Times has done all the hard work already. Published reports show that he booked the prostitute before he booked the congressional testimony. Therefore, the state purpose for the use of the state plane was a pretense for the non-state purpose of the trip. This appears to be a clear violation of the Public Officers Law.

2.      Investigate Barry Ginsberg's solicitation of a new state job from officials he regulated. This appears to be  another clear violation of Public Officers Law. In fact, I know of a case where JCOPE imposed a fine on a much more sympathetic state employee for doing a similiar thing.

3.      Investigate the District Attorney’s Association’s registration status. This is a classic “Do as we say, not as we do” situation. It should be made right.

4.      Investigate the Ward Stone matter. Yes, investigate his conduct, but also investigate the leaking of the IG’s report. Who did it, and for what purpose?

The second path, which I think is more productive, involves a re-thinking of the role of the watchdog.

You could have a pit bull. And as the owner, you could “sic” it on whoever you think is a bad guy. A dog like that could take a big bite out of a person’s behind.  Even if the dog doesn’t bite it’s going to scare a lot of the folks it chases.

Or you could have one of those service dogs trained to sniff out drugs and bombs, or find a missing person. This is the better metaphor for JCOPE.

We need a highly-trained animal that sniffs out problems before they explode.

Under Ms. Biben’s leadership, JCOPE could do just that. For example, it could and should carefully review all of the lobbying and financial disclosure data it collects – and focus on problematic conduct proactively.

Keep in mind there’s all kind of conduct that may not be expressly illegal, but does raise fundamental questions of right and wrong. I and others would like to see JCOPE expose such conduct – especially in the area of special interest lobbying.

But whichever path Ms. Biben chooses, I wish her well.

Of course, I’ll be at the meeting today and in the weeks and months ahead. I’ll watching and reporting and doing my best to be constructive. And if Gershman and Confessore can’t find the time to study these ethics issues just listen to my growling and barking you might just find a story to write about.

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