10:15am

Fri June 1, 2012
Politics and Government

Ethics panel meets among controversy

The head of the state ethics commission, Janet DiFiore, says she has “done nothing wrong,” after allegations she used her influence as Westchester County DA to obtain welfare benefits for her maid.

DiFiore spoke after a lengthy closed door session of the ethics commission.

The allegations against the Westchester County DA chosen by Governor Cuomo to head a newly formulated state ethics commission were first reported in the New York Post.  The paper quoted a political rival of Janet DiFiore, who accused the DA of improperly using her influence to obtain food stamps, Medicaid and other government welfare benefits for her long time live-in servant. The Westchester County Social services agency is investigating.

DiFiore refused to discuss details, when she was asked about them following a lengthy closed-door meeting of the ethics commission.

“I have done nothing wrong on anyone’s behalf, let alone someone who was an employee for me,” said DiFiore, who called the allegations a “politically motivated attack.”

The over three-hour, closed executive session was proceeded by a 26 minute public portion of the meeting.

In the meeting commission members squabbled over procedures to adopt regarding staff confidentiality agreements.

During the public portion of the meeting reporters were restricted from leaving their seats to better record the discussion, and video cameras were asked to leave half way through the proceedings.

Commission spokesman John Milgrim says the reason was that the room was at its 49 person capacity, but a count of those present, recorded by video cameras before they were asked to leave, showed no more than 40 persons at the meeting.

Milgrim says the meeting was available on the web.

One day before the meeting, Governor Andrew Cuomo offered a qualified defense of DiFiore, saying she seemed the best person for the job.

“A sitting district attorney, that says serious,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo refused to get drawn into the controversy.  

“I’ll leave that to Westchester County to sort out,” Cuomo said. “And I’ll stay out of the county’s process and stay out of the local politics.”  

The governor says he has not spoken to DiFiore since the allegations surfaced.

The questions over Ethics Chair DiFiore’s domestic help is not the only controversy connected to the ethics commission.

Recently, it was leaked that the commission was investigating a complaint about the second most powerful Senator in the Majority Republican conference, Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous, over allegations that surfaced in an unrelated corruption trial.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos initially demanded an investigation of the leak, saying a crime had been committed. It’s illegal for commission members to discuss ongoing investigations. But Skelos later backed off that stance, saying it would be hard to prove and  better to fix up the laws governing the ethics commission instead.

“Our effort is better off directed towards improving the legislation rather than an investigation that probably won’t get any result,” Skelos said.

Governor Cuomo, who convinced the legislature to create the ethics panel last year, after the previous ethics commission had been discredited, admits that some of the rules governing the commission may need some tweaking.

“The constant dialogue that is coming from the commission I find troubling,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo says overall, though he is 'fully confident' that the ethics commission will achieve its goal of improving government ethics, but he admits it’s a “very complicated undertaking.”

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