Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Home is Where the Heart is.

JCOPE Must Keep its Eye on the Ball

I love the Times Union. I really do. It gets criticized at times by the NY Post and others, but I think it does a good job of covering state government. I also respect its editorial board and its columnists, especially Fred LeBrun.

That said, the paper is not immune to running the occasional op-ed that is ill-conceived.

One such offering appears today. It’s headlined: “Ethics Must Rule Across NY.”

This reminds me of when I was a teenager and we’d all shout about some heavy metal band: “They rule!”

Back then, we didn’t know what we were talking about, and neither does the author of this op-ed.

The author, a former president of the New York State Bar Association, makes the point that public corruption isn’t limited to Albany and, gosh, something needs to be done about it.

Full disclosure here: The author is Stephen Younger, who represented Russell Simmons in his federal lawsuit against the old Lobby Commission. For those who have forgotten, The Lobby Commission prevailed in that matter.

Back to the op-ed: Who would argue with the notion that corruption should be fought at every level?

I wouldn’t dispute this narrow point. Not at all. Where I get worked up is with the subsequent point of Mr. Younger, which is that JCOPE should “refocus its ethic enforcement system to embrace a statewide effort.” JCOPE should distribute “the commission’s enforcement capabilities across our state.”

To this I say: Are you kidding?

Doing what Mr. Younger proposes is a major mistake.

JCOPE has very limited resources and inexperienced staff that needs to focus on its core functions.

JCOPE is not a DA’s office nor a U.S. Attorney’s office.

JCOPE cannot catch the next Pedro Espada by staking out a sushi restaurant or developing a source at the local pony rental business. (These are the examples of intrepid investigative work cited by the author of the op-ed).

Instead, JCOPE must focus its limited resources in Albany where it is based. It must comb its own records and databases to develop cases and then focus its available investigators on matters at hand.  Just looking at donations and legislation could occupy an investigator full time IN ALBANY.

Now I’m sure the author of this op-ed is a well-intentioned person... No, check that. I’m actually very skeptical of this effort. I find it strange that it appeared on the day that JCOPE is having a meeting. And I wonder whether the author was put up to writing this piece. (Is there really a coincidence in this town?)  I’ll have to watch the meeting closely to see what Ms. Biben has to say about JCOPE offices.

In this regard, I’m hearing rumors that JCOPE’s leadership really wants to create regional offices and expand its mandate to cover all kinds of additional areas.

Bad idea.

JCOPE needs to keep its eye on the ball. It needs to staff up and do the job it was meant to do. It’s a job that hasn’t been performed adequately in years and state government is suffering for it.

If JCOPE leadership wants to have regional offices, either to make the point that ethics is statewide or for other personal reasons, perhaps it can get a suite in an existing state office building and use the facility when needed. But it shouldn’t post people in regional offices where they’ll just sit there, or worse run around spying on people with binoculars.

Keep your eye on the ball, JCOPE. Please.

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