Yesterday, the Associated Press reported on a curious development at New York’s powerful new ethics board, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. On Feb. 2, the board had announced the appointment of Ellen Biben, a former prosecutor and longtime aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as its executive director. The hire was decided on in a secret vote by the board two days before the announcement. After the decision, the AP filed a request under New York’s Freedom of Information Law to obtain records of the vote. The word came back yesterday that request had been denied — and that the ethics commission’s meetings and records were secret.
New York State has strong laws requiring open meetings of public agencies and disclosure of information to the public. So we want to know: How is New York’s ethics commission allowed to operate in secret?
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What we found
Today’s answer is simple: the law that created the new ethics board specifically exempted it from public disclosure requirements.
Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the New York State Commission on Open Government, pointed us to the law’s provision that “the only records of this commission which shall be available for public inspection and copying” are specific types of documents such as annual financial reports and terms of settlements. The statute further exempts the commission from the Open Meetings law that requires many state agencies and authorities to conduct meetings in public.
Since this language was written by legislators and signed into law by the Governor, Freeman said that media coverage criticizing the decision to deny the AP’s records request focused more on its symbolism than its substance. Said Freeman, “I am a bit mystified by the thrust of the AP story.”