Hochul wants to scrap ‘dysfunctional’ state ethics panel JCOPE, says it ‘failed to earn public trust’

Gov. Kathy Hochul delivers her 2022 State of the State Address in Assembly Chamber at the State Capitol.
Darren McGee/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Governor Kathy Hochul plans to abolish the state’s troubled ethics oversight body the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and replace it with an agency she said will be more independent.

“It is clear that JCOPE is irreparably broken and has failed to earn the public’s trust,” said Hochul in a statement Wednesday. “We must replace JCOPE with a new, truly independent watchdog with real teeth. This new ethics agency will prioritize transparency and integrity, crack down on any wrongdoing, and ensure compliance and ethical governing throughout State government.”

JCOPE was established in 2011 to ostensibly ensure the state’s elected officials and more than 250,000 employees comply with New York’s lobbying laws and regulations.

But the body has long been denounced by transparency advocates as not providing proper oversight of state government officials, often being nicknamed “J-JOKE.” 

The panel’s members are appointed by politicians and has refused to hold state powerbrokers to account. 

Most recently, JCOPE approved disgraced ex-Governor Andrew Cuomo’s $5.1 million deal to write a memoir about the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, before rescinding its own decision and demanding he return the proceeds to the state last year.

Hochul will propose legislation to repeal and replace JCOPE with a new enforcement agency with a rotating board of five members made up of deans from 15 state-accredited law schools or their designees.

Unlike JCOPE, the new body will also be subject to Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law.

The panel currently operates almost completely in secret, holding most of its meetings during so-called executive sessions that are closed to the public.

The legislation would also ban members from communicating with outside parties about any potential or ongoing investigation, subject to sanctions.

Hochul unveiled the proposal as part of her State of the State address outlining her agenda for the year, and follows her previous announcement that she wants term limits for statewide electeds, including the governor, state comptroller, and state attorney general. 

One good government group hailed the move as Hochul’s most important initiative to restore trust in New York’s government, one of the key issues of her administration since she took over in August.

“The independent commission proposed by the Governor is vastly superior to the current, completely dysfunctional and totally politicized Joint Commission of Public Ethics (JCOPE),” reads a statement from the organization Reinvent Albany. “Inevitably, the Governor’s proposal will be criticized for putting so much trust in law school deans and their designees as ethics commissioners. But until the Legislature produces a realistic approach for appointing an equally independent ethics commission, we are going to be working for the Governor’s law school dean plan.”