State ethics panel votes against issuance of subpoena in scandal involving Cuomo’s former aide
Some members of the state’s ethics committee pressed Tuesday for a subpoena to examine controversy over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s hiring of former aide Larry Schwartz as COVID-19 vaccine czar “Volunteer” for the state.
But those named by Cuomo to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, known as JCOPE, rejected the proposal.
Schwartz, Cuomo’s former chief of staff, led the state’s vaccine distribution as an unpaid volunteer. Some county leaders have accused Schwartz of trying to trade his loyalty to the governor, who is embroiled in several scandals, for access to doses of the vaccine.
Cuomo and Schwartz deny that this happened, but the allegations are under investigation by Attorney General Tish James, as well as an impeachment inquiry by the State Assembly.
JCOPE commissioner Gary Lavine lobbied for permission to issue a subpoena to find out more about Schwartz’s status and whether there were any ethical conflicts.
“The request is an information subpoena,” Lavine said.
Because Schwartz was a volunteer, he was exempt from the State Public Officers Act by a special executive order issued by Cuomo. Without this exemption, Schwartz would have been forced to file financial disclosure forms and would be banned from lobbying the state for two years.
Schwartz, during his time volunteering as the vaccine czar, continued to work for an airport concession company that holds state contracts. He left the volunteer post in April, after the state legislature voted to bring Schwartz under the Public Officers Act.
Lavine, who was appointed to JCOPE by the Republican senatorial minority leader, said the subpoenas would investigate whether Schwartz or other volunteers were recusing themselves from any decision that could potentially create a conflict of interest with their private sector employers.
“Probably one or more of the top volunteers aren’t volunteers at all,” Lavine said. “They were paid … by their employers. Employers who may have substantial business with the state.”
Commissioner Jim Yates, who was appointed by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat, also supports the proposal. He said JCOPE staff requested information about the volunteers from the governor’s office, but the request was denied. He said there were many unanswered questions.
“We’ve asked the question a number of times,” Yates said.
Commissioner Daniel Horwitz, who was appointed by Cuomo, was among the commissioners who questioned whether JCOPE had the power to issue the summons.
“It will be a subpoena outside the law,” Horwitz said.
Commissioner Marvin Jacob, also appointed by the President of the Assembly, argued that the proposed summons was not unusual and that similar watchdogs issue them regularly.
“It’s not something out of the ordinary and unheard of,” Jacob said. “It is done everywhere, all the time.”
In the end, the motion was defeated. Although seven commissioners voted for and six against, the vote is weighted. In order for the action to be carried out, eight commissioners must come to an agreement, including at least two members appointed by the politician likely to be the subject of the investigation. In this case, two of the governor’s commissioners had to vote yes for the summons to go ahead, and neither of them did.
JCOPE has been widely criticized for its ineffectiveness in monitoring ethics violations, in part because of these voting rules.
A bill approved by the state Senate on Tuesday would change the rules and allow a simple majority vote of commissioners to conduct an investigation. This measure has not yet been voted on in the National Assembly.