Editorial: New York's ethics façade

New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics commissioners vote on a motion during the public portion of the group?•s meeting on Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at the JCOPE offices in Albany, N.Y. (Will Waldron/Times Union)

New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics commissioners vote on a motion during the public portion of the group?•s meeting on Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at the JCOPE offices in Albany, N.Y. (Will Waldron/Times Union)

Will Waldron, Staff Photographer / Times Union

The staff of a district attorney with ties to then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo is accused of abusing power. The state Inspector General shrugs it off. The Inspector General’s office is accused of shirking its responsibility. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics shrugs it off.

If ever a series of events illustrated how corrupt New York’s ethics enforcement system is, this is, well, one of them.

It is not enough to say that Mr. Cuomo resigned in disgrace last month (for unrelated reasons), and that his last inspector general, Letizia Tagliafierro, also resigned Friday, just before the Times Union published accounts of these ethical failures. If one governor and his administration can so manipulate the state’s ethics systems, you can bet others will do it — until New York builds a better one.

As the Times Union’s Chris Bragg reports, Shawn Broton, a former deputy chief of the Syracuse Police Department, filed a complaint with the Inspector General’s office in 2013 asserting that staffers of Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick had seized a video recording made by a musician hired to play at an 2011 office holiday party. The recording is said to have contained some off-color remarks by Mr. Fitzpatrick, which Mr. Fitzpatrick denies making. His staff was accused of threatening the musician and having a government crime lab edit the speech out of the video.

The outcome? The Inspector General’s office never investigated the allegation about the crime lab deleting material from the video.

Mr. Broton subsequently filed a complaint with JCOPE seeking an investigation of the Inspector General’s Office. That, too, went nowhere.

Along the way, Mr. Cuomo appointed Mr. Fitzpatrick as co-chair of his Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. Mr. Fitzpatrick, under pressure from Mr. Cuomo’s office, withdrew a subpoena to a media-buying firm close to the governor’s campaign. When the governor prematurely shut down the commission, Mr. Fitzpatrick defended him.

Bear in mind what else Mr. Cuomo did knowing full well he had the state ethics watchdogs under his thumb. His administration, including the Inspector General’s Office, went after whistleblowers who testified about sexual harassment in the Division of Criminal Justice Services. The Health Department covered up thousands of deaths of nursing home residents and stonewalled the Legislature for months. The governor was accused of sexually harassing multiple women. He told JCOPE that he would not have state employees help with a memoir of his handling of the COVID-19 that earned him $5.1 million, but then used them anyway.

There must be a better way of keeping state government honest than a system that can be so easily compromised and corrupted by a governor simply by putting trusted allies in charge of it. As we have said over and over, the Legislature must create an independent ethics watchdog whose work can’t be quashed by the very people it oversees. What New York has now is a façade of good government. To anyone who hasn’t gone nose-blind from the stench of corruption, it reeks.