Beleaguered state ethics committee loses another commissioner

Jul 31, 2013

The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, met Tuesday and spent most of its time in a private session, as Patrick Bulgaro, a key appointee of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, resigned from the board.

Silver was the subject of a recent ethics commission probe, which examined his role in the sexual harassment charges against former Assemblyman Vito Lopez. The report found Silver was not guilty of any wrongdoing, but did criticize his role in a secret $100,000 settlement to two of Lopez’s alleged victims.

Bulgaro is not giving any reason for his departure, but he was one of the few commissioners in the ethics board's two year history to speak out publicly at a meeting last September, when he complained about leaks from the commission to the media on the Silver investigation.

David Grandeau is the former head of the State Lobbying Commission, where Bulgaro also served as chairman, and was merged into the present ethics commission. Grandeau, who ran what was considered to be a successful ethics panel, now advises clients who appear before the state ethics commission. He says he has not spoken to Bulgaro but believes he made the right decision.  

“He doesn’t need the hassle and decided [it was] time to pull the ripcord,” said Grandeau. “Good for him.”

Bulgaro has had a long career in state government, including a stint as budget director for former Gov. Mario Cuomo. He is the third commissioner to resign from the ethics panel in less than a year. Ravi Batra, appointed by the Senate Democrats, quit over what he said were attempts by uomo to try to control the ethics panel. Commission Chairwoman Janet DiFiore resigned to seek reelection as Westchester County District Attorney. The executive director of JCOPE has also left.

Grandeau, who refers to JCOPE as "J-JOKE," says the secrecy surrounding many of the commission’s proceedings has been corrosive.

“Of course people are going to believe in conspiracies,” said Grandeau, who thinks JCOPE reflects the “back room” style of Albany politics. “That’s unfortunately reflected in this defunct, decrepit joke of an agency."

The ethics commission appeared to live up to some of the views of its critics. In the only public portion of its five hour meeting,  commissioners held a rambling discussion in which they seemed to backtrack on new rules, regarding donor disclosure by 501(c)(4) not-for-profit groups, that were about to be implemented. The 501(c)(4)s have been used by political campaigns to avoid existing donor disclosure laws, but the commission decided to require not-for-profits to make their donors public. Some exceptions were made for groups like NARAL Pro Choice New York and others, who argued that making the names public could endanger their donors.

The commission had held a hearing and discussed the new regulations at several meetings. They were about to become final on August 14. Then, David Renzi, an appointee of Assembly GOP Leader Brian Kolb, voiced some objections.

“I think we’re making a mistake in the way we’re proceeding,” Renzi said.

The commissioners then discussed whether to amend the regulations. At one point, Gary Lavine, appointed by Cuomo, suggested that the not-for-profits seeking exemptions should be required to disclose their list of donors to the ethics commission, who would then keep the names secret.  The board ultimately decided to table the discussion for the next meeting in September.

They also announced that a meeting scheduled for late August will be canceled.  

The move created some confusion among some not-for-profits have already sought and received waivers for exemptions to the donor disclosure rules. A spokeswoman for NARAL Pro Choice New York, says the group has already applied for the waiver and received a letter from JCOPE confirming that it qualified for the exemption. A spokesman for JCOPE later clarified that already approved groups will get to keep their exemptions.

After the vote, the commission entered a four hour executive session conducted behind closed doors. There was no official word on what they discussed.