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N.Y. Ethics Panel Violates State Constitution, Appeals Court Rules

LocalN.Y. Ethics Panel Violates State Constitution, Appeals Court Rules

Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo notched another victory in his battle against New York State’s ethics panel on Thursday, as an appellate court upheld a lower court finding that the body was unconstitutional.

The unanimous ruling by the five appellate judges against the Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government sets the stage for a showdown with profound ramifications for ethics enforcement in New York state.

The state vowed to appeal the ruling by the Appellate Division’s Third Judicial Department to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. And while the state is entitled to seek a stay to keep the ethics board operating pending that decision, Thursday’s ruling casts doubt on the commission’s long-term viability.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, Mr. Cuomo’s successor, created the ethics panel in 2021 as part of an ambitious campaign to restore the public’s faith in government after the scandal of Mr. Cuomo’s resignation in August 2021.

Mr. Cuomo has been fighting the panel over its attempt to compel him to hand over $5 million he received for writing a book about his administration’s efforts to fight Covid at the height of the pandemic.

Avi Small, a spokesman for Ms. Hochul, said the governor was “committed to upholding high ethical standards in government” and would be reviewing the decision.

The chair of the ethics panel, Frederick A. Davie, and its executive director, Sanford Berland, said in a statement that ethics and lobbying laws would remain intact while they considered what path to follow. “We respectfully disagree with the result reached by the court and are reviewing all options, including, if appropriate, recommending interim legislation,” the statement said.

When Ms. Hochul created the ethics board to replace the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which had been dogged by rumors of corruption that degraded it to little more than a punchline, she pledged the new board would be truly independent.

To this end, she sought to strip out those elements that had left its predecessor vulnerable to political influence — most notably reducing the number of members appointed by the governor and creating a new, independent vetting process that employed a panel of deans from the state’s law schools.

Watchdogs largely applauded the new panel as a much-needed tonic for scandal-prone Albany.

But the efforts were no match for Mr. Cuomo, whose pre-existing war with the ethics board’s predecessor over his book deal had already spurred several lawsuits.

The former governor sought and received approval for the deal from the old commission, but that approval was later rescinded after commissioners accused Mr. Cuomo of misrepresenting details of the project and the state resources that would be used.

Incensed at allegations of wrongdoing and eager to hold on to the bounty, Mr. Cuomo sued the commission. When it was disbanded to make way for the new entity, he sued that panel as well, arguing that the inclusion of the law school deans in the appointment process and reduced power of the governor violated the constitutional powers granted to the executive.

The trial court and the Third Department both agreed.

“The Legislature, though well intentioned in its actions, violated the bedrock principles of separation of powers,” Thursday’s decision reads, affirming that the power to make appointments rests with the governor.

In a statement, Mr. Cuomo’s spokesman, Richard Azzopardi, celebrated the decision, saying, “This has been a three-year exercise to bend the law to fit the political will of those in charge, and hopefully after this second — and unanimous — court decision, this partisan and baseless prosecution will finally end.”

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