- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - A state ethics board created to address Albany’s corruption problem squabbled Tuesday over perceived meddling by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with some members vowing to oppose any effort to hire a new executive director with ties to him.

Over a strained two hours, members of the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics bickered over the process for selecting a new executive director following the resignation of Letizia Tagliafierro. Several members questioned whether Cuomo had too much influence over the agency, which is now looking for its third director in less than four years.

The back-and-forth underscores Albany’s sometimes ineffectual attempts to police itself amid a wave of indictments and scandals even as it offers the commission a chance to address questions about its independence that have dogged it since its creation in late 2011.

“We are the inspector general of last resort in this state,” said Commissioner Marvin Jacob, who was appointed to the board by former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, now facing federal bribery charges. “If we’re not independent, then who is?”

The agency oversees the enforcement of state ethics rules and financial disclosure requirements. Its executive director is picked by a vote of the 14 commission members. Cuomo picks six; legislative leaders pick the other eight. Commission Chairman Daniel Horwitz defended the selection of the last two directors and vowed a national search for the best candidate.

“We will cast, as we have done in the past, a wide net,” said Horwitz, who was appointed by Cuomo. “We will go through this in a deliberative and thoughtful process.”

The first two directors each had long professional ties to Cuomo. The first, Ellen Biben, had served as Cuomo’s inspector general and worked for Cuomo when he was attorney general. Tagliafierro worked for Cuomo in both the governor’s office and the attorney general’s office before that. She left the commission to join Cuomo’s tax department. Their backgrounds had long prompted questions about their willingness to hold their old boss accountable to state ethics rules.

In one of her last acts, Tagliafierro hired another former Cuomo staffer to be the commission’s new chief of staff and special counsel. Kevin Gagan worked under Cuomo in the attorney general’s office and later worked for the state police during Cuomo’s tenure as governor. Gagan’s hiring upset some commission members so much they penned a letter to the editor in the Albany Times Union warning that public trust in the commission was being eroded.

The infighting on the commission comes amid a string of high-profile corruption cases brought by federal prosecutors. Six former legislative leaders have faced criminal charges in recent years, including Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, and ex-Senate Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican accused of using his influence to arrange payments and a no-show job for his son. Five members of the commission were appointed by either Silver or Skelos.

Last month, two formerly high-ranking lawmakers were convicted of unrelated federal crimes. In all, 31 lawmakers have been forced from office since 1999 because of criminal convictions or allegations of ethical misconduct, according to a tally kept by the good-government group Citizens Union.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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