Is it ethical for Cuomo’s ethics panel to meet behind closed doors?

As Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new ethics panel begins meeting, the group has raised eyebrows by holding two meetings — one on a conference call and the other in a closed executive session — without public scrutiny.

This from WNYC’s political blog The Empire.

The Associated Press’ Michael Gormley then asked why the commission felt the need to go into special executive, non-public session–what was the specific reason. [Chair Janet] DiFiore essentially told Gormley, “Because I said so.”

Actually, DiFiore’s statement was a little more nuanced than that.  Here it is:

I think all of us would agree, given the nature of the work here, we should endeavor to do as much of our work in open view and have the public be able to tune in and hear what we’re thinking, and talking about and working on.

But there are some matters that requires confidentiality and I think that as we go we will figure out what those matters are.

Today, the matters that are on our agendas, that we will discuss in executive and closed session meeting, I think are appropriate.

As a journalist, I have to say that doesn’t pass the sniff test.

The public needs to know at the very least what issues are being raised behind closed doors. Denying the public that minimal amount of disclosure is a pretty questionable way to start this latest effort at cleaning up Albany.

This panel is supposed to look out for the interests of voters and citizens, not politicians and insiders.  It’s hard to see how that’s going to happen if basic standards of public accountability aren’t met.

With another state Senator resigning in disgrace this week and facing criminal corruption charges, this isn’t just academic stuff.  This goes to the heart of good government in the Empire state.

What do you think?  Governor Andrew Cuomo promised real, substantive ethics reform.  Is this the right path to get us there?

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19 Comments on “Is it ethical for Cuomo’s ethics panel to meet behind closed doors?”

  1. oa says:

    “as we go we will figure out what those matters are.”
    That really isn’t more nuanced than “because I said so.”
    Pretty outrageous. Time to FOIL em, Brian.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Only time will tell but this points out something seldom mentioned.
    There is a presumption that the public wants to know everything when for the most part the public doesn’t care much about anything.
    Most of the complaints about the lack of open government come not from the public but from the media and other special interest groups. This is probably as it should be because the public doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to micromanage the government. It is for this reason we elect representatives.

  3. This panel has already ruined its own credibility after two meetings. Secret meetings with no public announcements. Going behind closed doors without even contriving an excuse. The fact that all this is legal, that this body charged with regulating ethics and transparency is exempt from the open meetings law, is a damning indictment of what passes for “ethics” in NYS. Sorry Gov. One Percent, you botched this one.

  4. shauna says:

    It would be very unfair to have someone’s name associated with a possible ethics violation for all to see, hear, and distribute on this unforgiving internet without absolute proof. I’d rather they kept their proceedings very quiet until they know for sure what’s what with any situation. Innocent until proven guilty and all that…..

  5. dave says:

    I’m with Shauna.

    I do not think the public needs to be involved in or scrutinize every meeting that our officials have.

    I mean… do you really think this panel should be discussing possible allegations or potential ethics issues publicly? This isn’t a gossip committee.

    If that is not what you meant, then I’d be interested in knowing what exactly is appropriate in your opinion and what information would satisfy you?

  6. oa says:

    Wow, Dave and Shauna. The point of hearings is to find out if things are true or not. These are public officials we’re talking about, doing the public’s work. And it should be done publicly, with clearly defined parameters and exceptions. “We’ll figure it out” is not clearly defined. Doing it in secret invites all manner of shenanigans.

  7. Walker says:

    Shauna’s point is a good one, but all they had to do was explain that they were discussing specific allegations. Saying that you’re convinced that your secrecy is appropriate just doesn’t cut it.

    And for that matter, “innocent until proven guilty” does not mean “innocent until proven guilty in secret deliberations.” That’s not how the legal system works. And this is politics, where if there are suggestions of impropriety to be made, you can be real sure that the other party is going to make the charges known. So this almost smells like horse trading– we’ll keep your stuff quiet if you keep our stuff quiet.

    That’s why they should be more forthcoming– to try to keep us from speculating on just what it is they’re up to.

  8. dave says:

    These weren’t “hearings” oa. They were meetings, according to the information above.

    Do you really think every meeting that public officials have should be publicly scrutinized?

    That would be counterproductive in so many ways it would be hard to mention them all.

  9. MrSandwich says:

    How do you put the toothpaste back in the tube. I think they were smart to close the meetings from the public. Otherwise all you need to do is make the allegation (ala Fox News). The retraction never seems to make a headline.

  10. Yes, I do think public meetings should be held in public… especially ones related to ethics, corruption and transparency… the honest and proper functioning of the government we’re paying for. These are ethics standards that apply to all elected officials. If they’re too stringent for you, go into another line of work.

    What Shauna worries about already happens in the criminal sphere. Any time someone is merely charged with a crime, his/her name appears in the newspaper as a matter of public record. The dropping of said charges due to lack of evidence rarely does.

  11. Grand juries are held in public. Trials are held in public. Even mere arrests are public record. Should all these be made secret?

  12. Pete: the presumption isn’t that every citizen is interested in the mundate workings of such panels. The presumption is that such meetings should be available to those members of the public that are so interested, given that it pertains to the government we’re paying for. I occasionally go to city council meetings and there are rarely more than 5 or 6 in attendance in a city of 14,000, but the meetings are still public.

  13. dave says:

    “Grand juries are held in public. Trials are held in public. Even mere arrests are public record. Should all these be made secret?”

    No, of course trials and arrests should not be made secret.

    But this is a good analogy to stick with…

    We do not get to sit in on internal law enforcement meetings where they discuss their suspicions, strategies, suspects, tips, or rumors. It is made public when they have enough evidence and reason to believe someone should be charged/arrested and brought to trial. That is when the public legal system kicks in – parts of which are still not entirely public, such as jury deliberations.

    Similarly, I see absolutely no need to have the public sitting in on every meeting an ethics panel has – especially those that may be discussing mere suspicions and possible violations to investigate. When they get to the point where a case can be made for a violation – that is when we need to hear about it.

    I find this notion that we need to be a fly on the wall of every single government meeting to be a draconian, unsustainable view of accountability.

    Fascinating conversation though. Really enjoy the different view points.

  14. oa says:

    “especially those that may be discussing mere suspicions and possible violations to investigate”
    How do we know this is the case, Dave? We don’t. Which is the point. If they have parameters, they can give reasons. But they don’t, and they don’t. As it stands now, they could be talking about how to cover up one of the ethics panel members’ recently received bribes from Obama to keep his mouth shut. And we’ll never know.

  15. Pete Klein says:

    I fully back all points made in the above by Dave.
    People like to gossip. Gossip becomes a rumor and before you know it a reputation can be damaged.

  16. Tom says:

    Ethics and Politicians= Oxymoron

  17. dave says:

    “As it stands now, they could be talking about how to cover up one of the ethics panel members’ recently received bribes from Obama to keep his mouth shut. And we’ll never know.”

    I’m not sure you can ever eliminate these types of doubts. Even if you insist on sitting in on every single meeting anyone ever has… how do you know they aren’t scheming after hours?

    Open meetings do not stop bad people from doing bad things. At best it seems like it would provide us a false sense of security and accountability, and I am not sure that is worth potentially ruining someones reputation or handcuffing this panel’s ability to get their important work done.

  18. oa says:

    Dave, that’s really cynical. And maybe rightfully so. But it sounds like you’ve completely given up. Let’s just have a dictatorship, then, where Obama can bribe anyone he likes in an officially sanctioned government meeting. Obama-Putin 2012!

  19. Mervel says:

    But you can’t raise substantive ethics issues particularly dealing with issues around government employees without confidentiality. If the panel is not allowed to meet in confidential meetings it is a blow off panel and for fluff only. If you are going to really talk about actual accusations against employees of the state of New York, you can’t talk about that in a public meeting.

    I would say if the committee cannot meet in private it is a sign that this is a nothing committee another fake for show deal and we can all yawn and go home. But if you want to talk about actual true accusations of corruption against individuals who have rights and have union representation then you have to vet those accusations in confidence, unless of course the ethics panel had no intention of doing anything serious to start with.

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