Paterson’s Pitch on Ethics

Wisely, Governor David Paterson has never promised to change the way Albany goes about its business. Such promises do nothing to win friends and influence people, and, in any case, inevitably lead to disappointment. But the governor’s new campaign to change the makeup and even the name of the state’s Commission on Public Integrity could lead voters to believe that real change is possible in Albany.

Governors have long promised to make state government more ethical and transparent, but few have truly done much to change New York’s political culture. The Commission on Public Integrity was, in theory, an independent watchdog over the executive and legislative branches, but it has been famously AWOL, to the frustration of good-government advocates and observant taxpayers.

One of the commission’s biggest flaws is its very institutional framework. Of the panel’s 13 members, seven are gubernatorial appointees. That makes them beholden to their patron—not the best way to achieve the sort of distance and objectivity required of a watchdog.

Mr. Paterson wants to take power out of the governor’s hands—out of his hands—by creating a new ethics commission composed of just five members to be selected by an independent screening panel. As the commercial says, now that’s progressive.

The new panel, to be called the Government Ethics Commission, would have powers beyond those of the current Commission on Public Integrity. For example, the new commission would enforce the state’s campaign finance laws, a job currently performed, poorly, by the State Board of Elections. In addition, the new commission would regulate lobbying and would monitor state compliance with open meeting laws. And, in an acknowledgment of the burgeoning scandal tied to former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, the new panel would regulate the use of middlemen—usually politically connected lobbyists and former officials—in the awarding of pension fund contracts. Private firms have hired friends and allies of top officials to gain access to pension fund management, according to an ongoing state investigation.

A 10-person screening panel would choose the five members of the new ethics commission. The governor would appoint four screeners. The remaining six would be selected by the state comptroller, the attorney general, the Senate majority and minority leaders and the Assembly speaker and minority leader. Membership on the screening panel would be diffuse enough to prevent one official from exerting too much control.

Good-government groups have been asking for a more aggressive ethics commission for years. They have had no shortage of material to cite in making the case that Albany needs adult supervision. The list of ethical outrages in recent years begins at the top. We have seen a two-timing Governor driven from office, a state comptroller forced to resign and legislators indicted. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s probe of the pension-fund scandal has given new urgency to arguments that Albany’s insidious, clubby atmosphere is made to order for corruption and waste.

While good-government advocates see Mr. Paterson’s proposal as a giant leap forward, that opinion is hardly universal. Legislators as a group have never shown much enthusiasm for greater public scrutiny. Mr. Paterson wants to do away with the state’s Legislative Ethics Commission—a do-nothing body if ever there was one—and give the new ethics commission power to monitor the practices and ethics of state senators and

Assembly members. The notion of independent oversight appears to frighten some legislators. One needn’t wonder why.

Mr. Paterson should move forward with determination and speed. If his former colleagues in the Legislature object to greater oversight, Mr. Paterson should challenge them to produce a better plan.