Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ethically Speaking-Careful What You Imbiben

City Room has a breaking story about the appointment of Ellen Biben to become the state's lead ethics watchdog-and not everyone is happy with the governor's choice;and we agree with those who are concerned:

"The appointment raises question about the commission’s independence from the executive branch, and its commitment to transparency. The new executive director, Ellen Biben, is a respected former federal prosecutor who served as a deputy under Mr. Cuomo in the attorney general’s office, and now serves as his inspector general. It is not clear why the appointment was not announced, or if Ms. Biben, who is said to have applied for the job, is having second thoughts."

Our agreement with those concerned about Biben's independence comes from the fact that her office has failed to even acknowledge-after more than half a year's time has elapsed-the WPU letter that raised questions about the governor's appointment of Joan McDonald, the former vice president for transportation at NYC EDC, as the new commissioner of NYS DOT. As we said last July:

"WPU sent a letter to the IG on May the 18th concerning the questionable appointment of Joan McDonald, a former NYC EDC executive, as commissioner of SDOT and we have yet to hear from her. In that letter we had pointed out:

"We are now calling on the Office of the State Inspector General to institute a full review of the actions of NYS DOT and its new commissioner in order to determine whether Commissioner McDonald has treated this review process with the fairness and impartiality it deserves.The governor has made governmental ethics a signature policy issue of his administration.

In the same spirit, WPU requests that you institute such a review by first calling on Commissioner McDonald to recuse herself from the ramp review process; and by then calling on the agency to also launch an independent evaluation of all of the environmental data that has been submitted by NYC EDC.

The actions of the new commissioner since she took office need to be subject to close scrutiny. This needs to be done in order to determine whether her past association unfairly deprived WPU and the citizens of New York State of an impartial review of a transportation project that we believe will cause huge negative impacts on the residents of New York City."

Not a peep from someone who-as a laudatory story in Capitol News highlighted-was been portrayed as an overseer who who be fiercely independent politically (unlike those ethically challenged Pataki folks, don't you know). Now Biben's silence on the Willets Point related issue may perhaps be no accident since she had previously headed the NY AG's "Public Integrity Unit," the one that punted the Claire Shulman investigation right after AG Cuomo accepted the endorsement of Mayor Bloomberg: "When Biben accepted the Public Integrity Unit post with Cuomo in 2007, she took over an office that had been gutted by prior administrations but was suddenly facing its most high-profile case in years."

That would be the Hevesi case and Biben and the AG went after the former Comptroller with a vengeance. But what about issues that are closer to home? Never crap where you eat is a phrase that comes to mind and we shouldn't expect any degree of real Independence from Biben on anything that remotely might impact the new Emperor of New York. Everyone else in Albany, as City Room reports, better watch out:

"Mr. Cuomo has put a priority on ethics reform in Albany, where there has been a parade of lawmakers accused or convicted of using their office for corrupt means. He hailed the ethics overhaul last year that created the joint commission as an important step in restoring the trust of New Yorkers in state government."

WPU is not finished with IG Biben, however, and we are going to be asking that her office investigate the conveying of public funds to Shulman's group while it was till supposedly under investigation by the current AG's office. What needs to be said most forthrightly here is that Cuomo shouldn't appoint a loyal retainer to do a job where independence is vitally needed. That he hasn't done so in this case is an indication that-as far as Albany is concerned-the more things change the more they stay the same.