New York’s powerful ethics board with its record of secrecy moved Tuesday under a new chairman toward greater transparency and took aim at a confidentiality loophole that protects special interests.
Good-government groups have said anonymous big money donors have used the loophole to hide behind in order to influence state government decisions and spending.
But several members of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics said Tuesday the board made a mistake a year ago in creating the broad exemption that allows lobbying groups to keep donors’ names secret if they can argue that public disclosure would present a threat to donors.
“What we’re really talking about is allowing tens of millions of dollars to be exempted from review,” Commissioner George Weissman said. “We should have that debate publicly.”
Commissioners agreed to have a public discussion on amending the exemption, possibly in early September.
The Tuesday meeting was a marked departure from previous commission meetings, which often included less than 10 minutes of public discussion followed by several hours of closed-door executive sessions. At least a couple of meetings were held without ever being announced; JCOPE’s first meeting two years ago was held secretly by phone.
Commission Chairman Daniel Horwitz allowed the public discussion Tuesday to continue for more than 30 minutes in one of the first meetings he’s conducted.
“I certainly think that your discussion and the allusion for the need for transparency is one that we all share,” said Howitz, an appointee of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “It’s very, very important.”
The commission traditionally has chosen not to abide by the state Open Meetings Law or the state Freedom of Information law. They have said they worry politicians could be unfairly targeted publicly for investigations.
In another notable turn Tuesday, JCOPE’s spokesman confirmed a board member’s resignation on Monday, before it was effective. In the past, commission spokesmen have often declined comment to news reporters.
But not everyone was convinced JCOPE is moving in a new direction and that big issues will be decided publicly.
“I’d be more impressed if they were doing that for the discussion of hiring a new executive director,” said lawyer David Grandeau, the state’s former lobbying chief who has clients who come before the commission.