ALBANY, N.Y. — New York state's new ethics enforcement board met Tuesday for the first time partly in public, revealing that board members receive $300 for each day they attend meetings, members will be asked to sign "non-disclosure" agreements barring public comment, and that its secretive practices will continue.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics' hour-long public session was spent mostly on introductions and discussing an agenda and plans for staff. That was sandwiched by two closed-door executive sessions, despite questioning by two board members and by The Associated Press. The ethics board was created and members were appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders to monitor ethical behavior of the elected officials and lobbyists.
"It's not a good start," said David Grandeau, the former head of the state's lobbying commission who is widely viewed by good-government groups as a top government watchdog. "I think bad things happen to good people in dark places ... most of this stuff is not confidential."
Even board member Patrick Bulgaro, who served on the board's precursor, the Public Integrity Commission, questioned whether so much of the agenda required closed-door sessions.
"I'm not clear about why that should be done in executive session and the question is whether that might be more appropriately handled here," Bulgaro said.
Board Chairwoman Janet DiFiore and the transition staff said they will adhere to what has been a little-known executive law that they said exempts the board from the Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Law created for the public to obtain government records. The provision appears to provide an option for the board to ignore the meetings law, which provides several provisions for private, executive sessions for personnel and litigation matters.
"I think that as we all know there is an exemption under the law," said DiFiore, also the Westchester County district attorney. "I think that all of us would agree, given the nature of the work, that 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 require confidentiality and I think as we go we will figure out what those matters are and today the matters that are on our agendas that we will discuss in executive and closed session are appropriate," she said.
The AP asked DiFiore to explain why the executive sessions were needed — something a government body is required to do under the Open Meetings Law — or if the action meant the board wouldn't follow the law. DiFiore said: "No, no. We are following the spirit of the Open Meetings Law."
There was no immediate comment from Cuomo, who had promised in his campaign a year ago to create the most transparent administration in history.
DiFiore announced the meeting on Tuesday was the 14-member board's first, but the group had met secretly by teleconference last week without notice. It was revealed through media reports. On Tuesday, even a board member referred to discussion from the meeting last week.
The law allowing secret meetings was created in 2007 by Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the Legislature for a previous ethics board, the Commission on Public Integrity. The commission followed the Open Meetings Law, using its provisions that allow for executive sessions to discuss personnel and investigations.
Cuomo and legislative leaders are applying that measure to the board they created to replace the integrity panel.
One board member, Ravi Batra, noted members receive a $300 per diem payment for their services, although no policy has yet been set and research has just begun on the issue. Members of the previous ethics boards were unpaid.
By comparison, senators and assembly members get a $165 per diem expense for food and lodging while working in Albany.