The chairman on what the ethics board is and is not

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 2/25/21

MONTICELLO, NY — It was almost buried in the larger drama.

The January 28 special meeting of the full legislature discussed ethics charges against legislator Luis Alvarez and chose not to …

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The chairman on what the ethics board is and is not

Posted

MONTICELLO, NY — It was almost buried in the larger drama.

The January 28 special meeting of the full legislature discussed ethics charges against legislator Luis Alvarez and chose not to impose sanctions. But there was criticism, by some members of the legislature, of the ethics board and the current ethics law. 

Current board chair John Kiefer addressed the executive committee last Thursday to respond and defend a volunteer-run board that usually operates near-invisibly. 

Kiefer said he was not asked to be at the January 28 meeting. One (recused) ethics board member was present, but nobody directed any questions to him. 

Kiefer outlined what the ethics board is and what it does.

To questions raised on January 28 as to whether the ethics board was qualified to do the job, he listed an extensive background in management and in arbitration. “I think this speaks for itself. I hope it does,” he said. It was also pointed out that the legislature approved the list of members. 

Regarding questions as to problems with the current ethics law, Kiefer reminded legislators that the board [in 2018] had spent “untold hours” revising the law, with the then-head of the legislature and the previous county attorney sitting in. It was presented to the legislature at the time “and it was tabled,” Kiefer said. 

Some called the law flawed. “We recognize that it was flawed, we attempted to correct those flaws, we brought it before this body, and it was tabled and never revisited. It’s my understanding that it’s going to be revisited soon. I hope so, because we put a lot of work into it. And we did clear up a lot of things that were not clear or appropriate.” 

The ethics board, he said, does not bring charges against anyone. They’re required to hear complaints against a person only if the complaints are covered under the ethics law. If the complaint falls within their purview—and they have dismissed complaints that did not—then an investigation is done. “Calling witnesses, asking the appropriate questions and determining if there’s merit,” Kiefer said. “If there’s merit, we move to the hearing phase [where] the accused with counsel appears with the ability to call any witnesses they feel is germane to the case.” 

He pleasantly pointed out to the legislature that the counsel for the defense could have called any witnesses he wished. Why was the legislator who thought she was present for the incident under discussion not called? 

That question was left hanging, and Kiefer moved on. 

The ethics board doesn’t impose penalties; they just find the facts and determine whether the law was violated or not, he said. In this case, they found that the ethics law was violated, they made a recommendation and it was the legislature’s role to do something about it. (Although some details about the proceedings slipped out in the discussion, deputy county attorney Tom Cawley stepped in to stop it. Ethics board hearings are confidential, he reiterated.) 

Some legislators had argued that they didn’t have evidence and felt uncomfortable imposing any sanction. “‘We have no evidence!’ people said,” Kiefer quoted. “Well, I believe the ethics board that you appointed” had the evidence and evaluated it. “And if you feel that that was insufficient, why wouldn’t you dismantle the ethics board and conduct the interviews yourself?”

The meeting on January 28, he said, “degenerated into an indictment of the ethics board. And if the ethics board doesn’t have the backing and support of this body, then I think you have to consider if you want” one, Kiefer said. 

What was wrong was that the ethics board was blamed. One member resigned. “And it makes me wonder, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

He cited a one-paragraph statement by the human
resources department on how government employees had to behave. “I believe that legislators should be held to that standard” if not a higher one, Kiefer said. “You folks are the ones who set the standard for the community.”

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