A state judge has declared that a commission established last year to enforce ethics regulations for New York state’s employees and elected officials is unconstitutional due to its excessive independence. This decision could significantly diminish the commission’s authority in tackling corruption and influence-peddling.
Former Governor Andrew Cuomo filed the lawsuit challenging the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government’s attempt to compel him to forfeit $5 million he earned for writing a book about his administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The commission was established by the Legislature and Governor Kathy Hochul to replace a previous ethics body that had faced criticism for its lack of independence. This move aimed to enhance public trust in government following Cuomo’s resignation in 2021 amidst a sexual harassment scandal.
The Commission’s responsibilities include investigating potential ethics and lobbying violations involving state officials, employees, lobbyists, and their clients. Findings related to state lawmakers are referred to the Legislative Ethics Commission for enforcement.
However, in the court ruling, New York Supreme Court Justice Thomas Marcelle stated that the commission’s level of independence poses a constitutional issue. He specifically noted that the enforcement of ethics laws is an executive branch power, which the commission’s independence interferes with, as the governor lacks control over its members and the ability to hold them accountable for neglecting their duties.
Justice Marcelle emphasized that amending the state constitution would be necessary to grant such powers to an independent body.
State officials expressed their intention to consider appealing the judge’s decision at the trial level. Governor Hochul’s spokesperson, Avi Small, stressed the importance of the newly established independent ethics body in restoring public faith in government and stated that they would collaborate with the Commission on supporting an appeal.
The Commission itself issued a statement expressing its commitment to promoting compliance with the state’s ethics and lobbying laws while the case proceeds through the legal system. They are exploring various options, including potential legislation.
Cuomo has been entangled in legal disputes with both the Commission and its predecessor, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, regarding his book earnings. State authorities alleged that Cuomo had violated his promise not to use state resources for the book, an accusation he has denied.
Cuomo filed his lawsuit in April, contending that the commission lacked constitutional authority to prosecute him. His spokesperson, Rich Azzopardi, characterized the ruling as a victory, claiming that it exposed the unethical and unconstitutional actions of individuals with political motivations who had misused their government positions.
Cuomo resigned in August 2021 following an investigation by the attorney general, which concluded that he had sexually harassed at least 11 women. He continues to deny these allegations.
Azzopardi added, “Every time someone charged with upholding the law looks at the facts, we prevail.”