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Calls Mount For Investigation After Leak Of Private Ethics Commission Meeting

New York State Capitol in Albany (file / credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

New York State Capitol in Albany (file / credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

ALBANY, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Calls have mounted for an investigation into the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics, after the fiercely private board allowed one of its closed-door meeting to leak onto the Internet.

The commission blamed the recent embarrassing transmission during a closed executive session on an unspecified technical issue. But critics have called for an independent investigation based on the powerful board’s own rules to determine if the leak, which could carry a misdemeanor charge, was an intentional political hit on the Assembly.

“There were technical issues that the commission was made aware of and it’s since been rectified,” said John Milgrim, spokesman for board. He refused to say if an investigation was made, if a person triggered the technical malfunction or if there was any indication the transmission was intentional.

“That’s the answer, that’s the response,” Milgrim said. Later on Monday, JCOPE called a special meeting for Tuesday but announced there would be no Internet transmission.

Former commission member Ravi Batra resigned in September to protest what he saw as a lack of independence from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Most of the commission’s top staffers had worked for Cuomo and he appointed the chairwoman. Batra had urged the panel to investigate a gambling interest that donated $2 million to a lobbying group, the Committee to Save New York, which promotes Cuomo and his policies, as Cuomo was contemplating expanding casinos statewide.

“There was a breach of confidentiality — accidental, technical or intentional political hit,” Batra told The Associated Press of the Jan. 29 event. “In any event, there must be an independent investigation of the cause.”

Batra said the leak “was a trifecta: reputation-damaging, confirming who is being investigated, and worst of all, one or more commissioners expressing the view that ‘recusal,’ already conflict-based, be unethically done without disclosure of the conflict.”

The leak, less than five minutes long during an executive session, revealed a probe into the Assembly and identified a top aide.

The commission has great power to regulate ethics and lobbying and is unusually vigilant about leaks. State law governing the commission threatens commissioners with a misdemeanor if they release information deemed confidential.

Milgrim said the commission operates under executive law that allows it to hold no public sessions and keep most records from disclosure. But the chairwoman has said the commission chooses to follow the “spirit” of the Open Meetings Law, although it faces no sanctions for violations of it.

Some commissioners have sought investigations of leaks to reporters.

Milgrim said Tuesday’s special meeting won’t be carried over the Internet because “little lead time and limited technical resources” made webcasting “not practical.”

During the Jan. 29 transmission, a commissioner appointed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is heard praising one of Silver’s top aides, noting the aide had “high ethical standards.” The commissioner, law professor and ethicist Ellen Yaroshefsky, said she wouldn’t recuse herself from a case in which the aide is apparently involved.

One commissioner says she shouldn’t have given her opinion on the ethics of a state official during an apparent investigation. The leader of the meeting said it was up to Yaroshefsky, not the commission, to decide if she should recuse herself. An unidentified commissioner cautions against Yaroshefsky’s full disclosure.

“If we are not going to recuse ourselves, the less said the better,” the commissioner said.

“Point well taken,” the discussion leader said.

The issue appears to have involved an investigation of sexual harassment accusations against Democratic Assemblyman Vito Lopez and a private $103,000 settlement using taxpayer money that was approved by Silver and reviewed by staff of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, all Democrats.

The investigation into Lopez’s conduct created an internal rift that threatened the commission itself and sparked Batri’s resignation.

An expert said the leak cannot so easily be chalked up to an accident.

“It’s my experience in government that when someone says it’s a technical issue, someone screwed up,” said David Grandeau, the former executive director of the state Lobbying Commission and currently an attorney whose clients include lobbyists. “It’s possible someone did it on purpose, right?” said Grandeau, a fierce critic of the ethics commission.

Yaroshefsky had no immediate comment. In September, she said she was frustrated to “personally be muzzled” by the commission in the face of what she said were inaccurate press leaks.

What do you think should be done about the leak? Please leave your comments below…

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