EDITORIAL: Ethical behavior starts with Jcope

IT’S WORTH NOTING WHENEVER a county resident makes news for the good things he’s likely to do. That’s the case with a lawyer named Seth Agata, appointed last week the executive director of “Jcope”, the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

Early in his career Mr. Agata was a Columbia County assistant district attorney, admired for his legal skills and integrity. He still lives here and after leaving the DA’s office he’s held numerous positions in state government: counsel for the majority of the state Assembly, counsel for investigations for the state comptroller and most recently chair of the Public Employment Relations Board. He’s also been in private practice. And he was counsel to Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Mr. Agata was picked as director–the third since Jcope was created by Mr. Cuomo and the legislature in 2011–by the 14-member Jcope board. He needed 8 votes from board members to be appointed and that’s all he got, according to the Times Union. The governor picks six members of the Jcope board.

The board isn’t talking about why half its members didn’t warmly welcome someone with Mr. Agata’s credentials. But Jcope hasn’t had a distinguished record in terms of reforming the ethical practices of state government. Neither has the governor. A few years ago Mr. Cuomo suddenly disbanded an even more powerful panel he’d created to investigate state corruption, leaving the public to wonder why. So Mr. Agata comes to Jcope with critics expecting that like his predecessors he is too close to the governor. They assume he won’t exercise the kind of independence needed to root out unethical behavior and improve the functioning of state government.

Jcope has limited powers but it can bring public attention to unethical actions and impose civil penalties. The vast majority of people on the public payroll and lobbyists behave honorably and, more to the point, within the law. Weeding out the bad actors is the long-term challenge for Jcope. But if Jcope wants to be considered as something more than a token watchdog, there’s one step it can take immediately.

A few months ago, before Mr. Agata was appointed, Jcope proposed a new requirement that lobbyists report to Jcope whenever they meet with the editorial board of a newspaper. Jcope already has rules requiring lobbyists to report when they meet with government employees, which makes sense. The public has a right to know who’s attempting to influence public officials. But newspapers don’t work for the government and government has no business collecting information on who talks to a newspaper or what they talk about.

Not many lobbyists drop in on The Columbia Paper, although lobbying firms occasionally contact us. This is likely to happen with projects that have environmental consequences, like a pipeline or high voltage power lines. When citizens organize to oppose the project, the project sponsor hires a lobbying firm to present the project in a positive light. As a newsgathering organization we need to know both sides of an issue. What principle of democracy gives Jcope the right to snoop on how we do that?

Like lobbyists, newspapers hope to influence public policy. The difference is that we publish what we know and disclose where we stand on public policy debates. Reliable reporting and clearly marked opinion helps people make wise decisions. They don’t need 14 government appointees around the Jcope table spying on people whose views our readers should hear.

Mr. Agata, if your new colleagues at Jcope insist on believing that lobbyists have dragged this or other newspapers into an ethical swamp, buy them a copy of this paper and ask them to prove it. Better yet, buy them a copy of every newspaper in the state and ask the Jcope 14 to explain how the reporting and opinions expressed in the pages of those papers, regardless of who influenced them, in any way lowers the ethical standards of state government.

You don’t need a lecture on the Bill of Rights to know that this proposal is political witch hunting at its worst. If it succeeds, this act of intimidation aimed at lobbyists will not end with them as the only targets. No one will be free to speak privately with the press.

The people of this state need an organization like Jcope to expose and sanction unethical behavior. But the proposal to monitor newspaper contacts stokes public cynicism and undermines everything supporters hope you can accomplish. As your first official act, convince the board to kill this dangerous plan.

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