Ethics-Minded People Argue Over the Ethics Comission

ALBANY—David Grandeau is delighted that the State Senate is scheduled to take up legislation blowing up the structure of ethics enforcement on Thursday, even as the head of the current Commission on Public Integrity made a public plea for its life.

"The basic pro is that anything that rids the state of New York of the Public Integrity Commission, is a step forward," Grandeau told me by phone. "This zombie agency has done more to set back ethics in the state of New York than anything that any legislator has done in the last two years."

He considers the commission's handling of the "Troopergate" affair a bungle; earlier this year a report by Inspector General Joseph Fisch called the CPI's investigation into question, and in response, David Paterson called for the resignation of all of the commissioners. None obliged, but executive director Herb Teitelbaum did resign.

Of course, the Commission on Public Integrity was created in 2007 by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer by combining the lobbying commission and the ethics commission.

Grandeau was the only person to lose his job in that merger (and has indulged his grudge in the past), which NYPIRG's Blair Horner agreed with Grandeau that the current CPI is the result of a "fatally flawed" "shotgun marriage" that "wasn't thought through."

(CPI spokesman Walter Ayres' rebuttal to Grandeau: "What does he mean by a zombie agency? I know it's a good-sounding phrase, but I'm not sure what it means. There's a book now called 'Pride, Prejudice and Zombies' in the bookstores, and I guess it's a trend now to add ‘zombie' to everything. I still don't know what it means, though, so I'll assume it's a compliment and that he thinks we're on the cutting edge of new trends.")

If the Senate passes this bill (it's also considering a chapter amendment), which already passed the Assembly, it would be up to David Paterson to sign or veto. He has proposed a different approach to structuring ethics enforcement that would keep the CPI largely intact.

At a hearing today, CPI Chairman Michael Cherkasky countered this assertion, and called the Senate's pending vote hasty and politically "advantageous and expedient."

He said breaking apart the agency into multiple enforcement entities–while putting him out of a job–would create a "tower of Babel" that "poses a substantial risk that the same law will be applied differently" by different agencies. It also won't change the way the toothless Legislative Ethics Commission operates, nor move it from under the control of the legislature.

"The elephant in the room is the fact that there's no action to the oversight of the legislature," Cherkasky told reporters after the hearing. I asked him if he had communicated his concerns to the governor; he said he had not (beyond talking to all of us) and said he was speaking out as a citizen in an unpaid position.

"Boy, there's obviously an ethical problem in this state," Cherkasky said. "There's perception and there's reality, and I think it's important for all of us to speak out. Other than that, how people accept it, I'll go back to my day job."

And speaking of going back to day jobs:

If this bill passes and the clock is turned back to 2007, does that mean Grandeau will return?

"We've always thought very highly of David and we thought he did a good job," Horner said. "But I have no idea what he wants to do with his life."

Grandeau didn't directly address the issue when I asked him.

"That's a difficult question for me," he said. "I've been very fortunate and lucky that in the last two years I developed a fortunate and successful business. But when the speaker of the assembly said that it was a mistake to split lobbying from ethics, I took that as a testament to the work that I did for 12 years. I took it as a compliment."