What do you expect? As the Times Union reports, the Legislative Ethics Commission works in secret. Could it be the way it’s put together?
In practice, the Legislative Ethics Commission is an extension of the legislators’ own team of lawyers, particularly the counsels of the majorities — the Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats.
The commission’s staff is hired by and regularly consults with the legislative lawyers. They draft recommendations behind closed doors, long before the commission’s appointed members sit down for an official vote.
The commission’s co-chair, a Senate representative, signs the staff’s paychecks. The commission is in a suite of Senate majority offices in the Alfred E. Smith state office building.
So what’s the Commission for? Basically,
The commission’s duties include “administration and enforcement” of the Public Officers Law for members and employees of the Legislature and candidates for state legislative office. It issues advisory opinions, investigates complaints and keeps financial disclosure statements of elected officers and candidates.
…Advisory opinion requests and responses are not subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Law. Investigations of complaints aren’t made public unless a “notice of probable cause,” a formal finding that wrongdoing may have occurred, is issued.
In the nearly two decades the ethics panels have existed, not one such notice has been issued, said Melissa Ryan, executive director and commission counsel.
So much for its legislative watchdogging. But it does turn out it serves a valuable function — for legislators themselves:
The commission also provides guidance on ethics laws through advisory opinions to legislators, staff and candidates…
When legislators or staff members want guidance on the ethics law, they often seek informal advice from the commission, Ryan said. But if the issue is complex or doesn’t have precedence, Ryan said she will suggest the person request a formal advisory opinion.
The person seeking an advisory opinion makes a written request, often hand-delivered to the commission, according to a person familiar with the commission operations. All the correspondence from the commission is hand-delivered, possibly to avoid mail fraud prosecution, the person said.
Federal prosecutors frequently use statutes that outlaw mail fraud to prosecute public corruption cases involving elected officials.
Ryan said hand deliveries are simply more convenient.
Of course they are. And e-mail would even be more… Wait. Nobody said e-mail. Hand delivery. Yeah, that’s the ticket. So if I’m a legislator and I want an opinion on whether some dealings I’m contemplating with my business buddies is legal, I want an advisory opinion from the commission, because —
A favorable opinion [from the Ethics Commission]… has great value. Under state law, “such opinion … may be introduced and shall be a defense in any criminal or civil action.”
And that’s why we have a secretive Legislative Ethics Commission that doesn’t issues notices of probable cause. So our tax dollars go to work covering your elected representatives’ posteriors.