THE BLOG
09/12/2012 11:15 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2012

Albany's Dance of the Dunces

We have all been waiting to see if the state ethics commission would decide to investigate a secret decision by powerful public officials to quietly pay off victims of sexual harassment with taxpayer money.

Results are in, more or less. The commission -- the grand reform product of the new Cuomo era of New York state government -- is going to investigate something.

It won't say exactly what. Something.

In the words of commission chairwoman Janet DiFiore: "The commission unanimously voted today to commence a 'substantial basis' investigation. That concludes my public comment and report."

Break out the champagne.

You've probably heard some of this story. A few weeks ago, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced that the powerful Brooklyn Democratic boss, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, was being stripped of his committee chairmanship and censured for sexually harassing his female staff.

The New York political world was shocked, impressed, and also a little suspicious of the speed with which Silver had acted on a case nobody had ever heard about.

Then we found out more: Before the current complaints, other women in Lopez' office had hired a well-known attorney, Gloria Allred, and brought similar claims that were settled secretly by the legislature for $103,080. Lopez, who kicked in some money as well, was just finishing his anti-sexual-harassment classes on the day Silver announced he was being censured on the newer charges.

While Silver was directing attention to the question of whether Lopez would resign -- he quit as Brooklyn Democratic chairman, but refused to leave the legislature -- most of us had a different concern. Did the speaker of the Assembly -- and other powerful public officials -- approve the use of our money to hush up Lopez' slimy misdeeds?

The outcry was enormous. All eyes turned to the ethics commission, which was created less than a year ago to be an independent watchdog.

The commission, which has 14 members including three appointed by Silver, met and agreed to an investigation. But word leaked out that it had decided to only look into the already disgraced Lopez.

During the ensuing even-louder outcry, Gov. Cuomo threatened to create his own investigation, although the ethics commission is already his baby -- at least according to previous press releases. The governor's dramatics didn't seem all that serious, but one of the commission members said she was "very offended."

One thing we know for sure. In the Cuomo era, our state government has set a new standard when it comes to creating groups to look into ethics. The attorney general and comptroller have a new joint task force on public integrity, too. That might be helpful in this case, except that it appears staff members in both offices were made aware that a $103,080 secret payment was in the offing.

The Staten Island district attorney, a Republican, is also investigating the whole mess. Why Staten Island? The Brooklyn DA is a Democrat.

Confusion is rampant. But one thing is clear. The brand new house-cleaning ethics commission now looks like a collection of morons. They met, they had a secret vote. Then they had a public meeting, which was nothing more than a long series of complaints about how nobody understood them. Then they met again in secret, and voted unanimously to investigate something. They refused to say exactly what.

On radio, Gov. Cuomo said the commission might need "some tweaks."