Law school deans unveil New York’s new ethics system

ALBANY — The deans of New York’s 15 accredited law schools on Wednesday announced a rigorous vetting process to select nominees for the state’s new 11-member Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government, which was created this year to overhaul the existing state ethics panel, which has for years faced criticism for some of its members’ apparent allegiance to the lawmakers who appointed them.

The law school deans were enlisted by state lawmakers to create the rules for appointing candidates to the new commission that’s scheduled to take shape next month as the much-maligned Joint Commission on Public Ethics — which was formed in 2011 — will be dismantled on July 8 under the Ethics Commission Reform Act signed into law this year by Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Unlike JCOPE, whose commissioners were generally appointed by New York’s top lawmakers with little vetting — including any deep review of their independence and impartiality — the new rules will enable a nominating committee comprised of the law school deans to reject someone not found to have “undisputed honesty, integrity and character.”

The process outlined by the law school leaders includes a thorough background check for nominees — similar to those conducted by the State Police for high-level executive branch appointees — to ensure their “past personal and professional conduct reflects adherence to the highest ethical standards, and that their lived experience allows them to understand the range of perspectives needed to effectively serve as a member of an ethics commission that has broad oversight of a large and diverse public workforce.”

The vetting also is intended to ensure the nominees have demonstrated an ability to be impartial, independent, fair and able to “decide matters based solely on the law and facts presented.”

The background checks, which will be facilitated by the state Office of General Services, will include fingerprinting, detailed questionnaires and financial disclosures as well as reviews of tax and credit reports. The nominees will be required to sign releases enabling the nominating committee to review those documents.

The law requires the governor to nominate three appointees to the new commission, with the remaining nominations as follows: Senate president and majority leader (two); Senate minority leader (one); Assembly speaker (two); Assembly minority leader (one); state comptroller (one); and state attorney general (one).

Anthony W. Crowell, dean of New York Law School and chair of the Independent Review Committee that crafted the new regulations, said in a statement: “As stewards of a profession built on the highest ethical and professional standards, we take seriously our role in determining whether a candidate nominated by an elected official should be appointed to serve as an ethics commissioner. We will conduct our work with the independence, transparency, and objectivity New Yorkers demand and deserve.”

The nominating process will include a seven-day public comment period for the elected officials’ proposed nominees. The official nominating the person will review the background information gathered about their candidate’s qualifications, suitability and fitness for the job before deciding whether to formally nominate the person for review by the Independent Review Committee.

The Ethics Commission Reform Act was negotiated by lawmakers behind closed doors as part of the state budget deal in early April. The deans of the law schools were not part of that process. Good government groups at the time criticized the fact that commissioners on the new panel –— as with JCOPE –— will be directly appointed by top politicians and may therefore be seen as lacking independence.

But the leaders of some of those groups have apparently embraced the new vetting system that enables the nominating committee to reject candidates determined to be unsuitable for appointment to the commission.

“It’s a breath of fresh air. How much it makes a difference, of course, time will tell,” said Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Research Group.

Horner said the law creating the new ethics panel is “relatively vague” on reasons for rejecting candidates, but he said the process outlined by the law school deans appears to be a “good faith effort to come up with a serious and professional approach” to finding independent and qualified commissioners.

“It’s not independent enough but given the circumstances, it’s better than anything certainly that’s existed in the past,” Horner added.