ALBANY — State lawmakers abruptly canceled an ethics hearing Monday, after it was revealed they could be in violation of New York’s transparency laws by continuing to meet remotely under recently expired pandemic-era rules.
The state Senate Ethics Committee’s planned 10 a.m. hearing gave legislators the option to make the trip up to Albany for an in-person appearance or convene remotely, via Zoom or Skype.
But they pulled the plug after the Committee on Open Government — the body tasked with protecting the state’s transparency laws — warned virtual meetings are no longer allowed after Gov. Andrew Cuomo ended the coronavirus state of emergency, Politico reported.
“Out of an abundance of caution we are going to postpone today’s ethics hearing to ensure we are fully complying with all state meetings laws,” tweeted Chairwoman Alessandra Biaggi (D-The Bronx) an hour after the hearing was scheduled to start.
“As the Senate Ethics Committee, and the first Senate Committee to hold a hearing since the end of the COVID-19 state of emergency, it is of the utmost importance we work with the highest level of integrity. We are committed to holding this hearing as soon as possible.”
Biaggi and ranking Republican Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-Suffolk) were the only two lawmakers to show up in person — while the remaining five committee members Zooming-in from home did not meet state requirements.
“We can’t even get the public hearing right, I mean this is embarrassing. It’s really unfortunate,” Palumbo (R-Suffolk) slammed his Democratic colleagues to reporters after learning of the mishap.
The Empire State’s open meeting laws says lawmakers “shall provide an opportunity for the public to attend, listen and observe at any site at which a member participates,” when holding a public meeting.
Cuomo suspended the rule during the pandemic to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and cut down on in-person gathering sizes, allowing lawmakers to vote and conduct official meetings from home. But last month’s lifting of those rules ended all special conditions granted.
“In my opinion, on or after June 25, 2021, a member of a public body wishing to form a part of the quorum for or cast a vote in a meeting subject to the law…held by videoconference (i.e., Zoom) may do so only if the public is permitted to be physically present with the member at the member’s location,” wrote Shoshanah Bewlay, the Committee on Open Government’s executive director told The Post in an email.
Palumbo also said he looked forward to questioning the new executive director of the embattled Joint Commission on Public Ethics — Judge Sanford Berland — about the ongoing scandals plaguing Cuomo, including details pertaining to his $5.1 billion book deal and reports that the governor’s family members got special access to COVID-19 testing.
In March, state Minority Leader Rob Ortt requested the body launch an investigation into reports that Cuomo misused state resources tied to the production of his pandemic-era memoir ‘American Crisis.’
JCOPE commissioners were also furious when they found out the panel’s lawyers quietly granted approval for Cuomo to work on the book last year, without a full vote by the board.
The ultra-secretive body has refused to comment on whether or not they have started a probe.
“It’s a missed opportunity. We hope to have a hearing soon, because this issue is critically important, and the failures of JCOPE are legion, structurally flawed. We think…JCOPE must go and it needs to be replaced,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the watchdog New York Public Interest Research Group, who was scheduled to provide testimony.
Erica Vladimer, a former legislative staffer who also has a pending JCOPE case and co-founder of the Sexual Harassment Working Group, traveled from New York City to testify as well.
“Ethics is not just about money that’s exchanging hands or jobs that are traded or bills that are passed as favors to somebody — it’s also about the human beings and how they’re being treated. And if they’re being respected, or they’re being disrespected, or harassed or discriminated against,” she said.
Meanwhile, the state Senate passed a bill in June that would alter JCOPE’s voting structure, diminishing the power structure favoring gubernatorial appointees over legislative appointees.
The measure failed to pass in the state Assembly.
Metro | New York Post