Assemblyman Will Barclay said today the ethic’s oversight in the state Assembly is inadequate and needs to be reformed in order to protect the public’s interest, not political interest.
Barclay is planning to put forth legislation that will create in law an Assembly standing committee on Ethics and Guidance that will be independent of the Assembly Speaker. This committee will replace the current Assembly Ethics committee.
Although the current Assembly Ethics committee has an equal number of Republican and Democratic members, the chair of the Committee is selected by the Assembly Speaker and any investigations are undertaken by staff employed by the Speaker.
Barclay, who formerly served as ranking minority member on the committee, says the Speaker’s direct or indirect influence over the current committee, by having the power to name the committee chair and staff, leads to actual conflicts of interest or, at the very least, perceived conflicts of interest. Barclay’s bill follows the recent news that the state ethics’ committee found “substantial basis to conclude” that Assemblyman Vito Lopez was in violation of public officer’s laws amid allegations that he sexually harassed his female staffers.
“Following the latest scandal involving Vito Lopez, it is clear that the structure in which the Assembly investigates ethical violations is in desperate need of reform,” said Barclay. “Having served on the committee, and witnessing the way in which it is run, we need an ethics committee that is more independent and protected by our laws to act to protect the public good.”
Among other things, Barclay’s bill would create an independent bipartisan committee, that meets regularly, with its agenda determined by co-chairs appointed by both Assembly minority and majority parties.
Further, the committee will be funded separately from the assembly appropriations and shall have the power to appoint an executive director and any other staff necessary to carry out its duties.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Barclay’s bill would put into law that ALL ethics complaints against any member of the Assembly or Assembly staff must be reported to this new bipartisan committee.
The committee will then have the power to investigate the claim or defer the complaint to the joint commission on public ethics, the legislative ethics commission, or an appropriate prosecutor.
If the committee determines that a violation has occurred, the committee shall then have the power to impose penalties or recommend punishments including, censure, stripping members of leadership positions or expulsion from the Assembly.
While the reforms that this bill would put in place have been needed for years, the fact that the Assembly has been rocked with yet another scandal provides further impetus for change.
Amazingly, the first complaints of sexual harassment against Lopez went to the Speaker’s office and the Speaker, in his sole discretion, decided not to forward the complaints to the Assembly’s Ethics Committee.
Rather, it was determined to enter into a confidential settlement agreement with complainants.
It is now being widely reported that it was the Speaker and not the complainants who sought secrecy.
“The current process is altogether flawed and designed to protect those in power. The Speaker should not have this kind of power over complaints directed at members or staff of the State Assembly,” said Barclay. “The people of New York State deserve better and now is the time to act. I look forward to circulating this legislation among my legislative colleagues and I am confident that, in light of recent events, this bill will have strong bipartisan support.”