ALBANY — Patrick B. Jenkins & Associates is one of the busiest lobbying firms in New York.
But records posted online by the state integrity watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), show the firm has nothing on file for the most recent bi-monthly reporting period: January through February.
Patrick Jenkins, the head of the firm, told CNHI when he was contacted Tuesday the firm made a complete filing and he was unaware that it was not showing up on the state's online record retrieval system.
Walter McClure, spokesman for JCOPE, said in an email: "As you know, we cannot comment on any individual compliance or enforcement matters, but the Commission does have a robust compliance program which makes every effort to ensure required disclosure filings are received and ultimately, when appropriate, we could pursue an enforcement action."
Advised later that Jenkins indicated his firm has indeed submitted its filing, McClure did not respond.
"I have had no trouble with my filings at all," said Jenkins. "They are all in and up to date." The problem, he said, "is on JCOPE's end."
The mystery of what happened to the Jenkins' filing comes at a time lawmakers are mulling the possibility of scrapping JCOPE for an independent integrity enforcement commission.
David Grandeau, an Albany-area lawyer and government compliance expert who once served as director of the now defunct state Lobbying Commission, said he filed a complaint with JCOPE in April when he searched for several filings and could not find one for the Jenkins firm.
Jenkins has close ties to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, dating back to their days together at Baruch College. Grandeau said he also checked over filings for lobbyists close to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Senate Democrats.
Grandeau said he now believes the JCOPE computer system either "auto-deleted" the Jenkins filing or it is being "hidden" by bureaucrats at the agency for unknown reasons. The larger point, he said, is that it reflects how JCOPE has been failing in its mission to make such filings transparent and to be vigorous in responding to alleged corruption at the statehouse.
"JCOPE has 'disappeared' more filings than Vladimir Putin," said Grandeau, injecting the name of the Russian leader to argue there is more skullduggery in play at the agency than ethics enforcement.
Lobbying is a major enterprise in New York, with some $298 million spent on promoting legislation in 2019, according to the most recent JCOPE annual report.
The current legislative session has advanced a mobile sports betting measure, with the Jenkins firm having clients involved in related gambling businesses. But because the firm's filing is not posted on the JCOPE site, the public does not know how much money those clients paid to the firm, or which public officials had meetings with Jenkins' lobbyists, Grandeau noted.
Clients of Jenkins have included the state Trial Lawyers Association and Uber Technologies Inc., two of the biggest spenders in Albany in recent years. Other clients of Jenkins include Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and casino operators Genting New York and Lago Resort.
Eight good government groups are urging lawmakers to replace JCOPE with an independent watchdog commission beyond the control of elected leaders. Among those who contend JCOPE is fundamentally flawed are the League of Women Voters, Common Cause/New York, Reinvent Albany, New York Public Interest Research Group, the Sexual Harassment Working Group and the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University.
JCOPE's decision to give Cuomo the green light to strike a publishing deal for a reported $4 million for a memoir on the pandemic last year has also been called into question by critics of the commission. Cuomo's book contract, finalized at a time when the Cuomo administration was undercounting COVID-19 deaths at state-licensed nursing homes, is now part of the focus of separate investigations by federal prosecutors, the Attorney General's Office and the Assembly.
John Kaehny, director of Reinvent Albany, said it is not unusual for lobbying firms to file reports with JCOPE listing identical bill numbers for successive years.
"The bill numbers all change every year, so what this means is that someone is just cutting and pasting the information from one year to the next" simply to fill the requirement of a timely filing, Kaehny explained. Other firms simply list that they lobbied on "the budget" or "excessively" list scores of bill numbers, Kaehny noted.
"The whole lobbying disclosure regime is a total joke," Kaehny said. "It is a giant time-waster."
He noted the Sexual Harassment Working Group has been discouraging women from filing any sexual harassment complaints with JCOPE because the commission "just can't be trusted" given the connections between the appointed commissioners and elected officials.
The fact that JCOPE could not produce a clear response to the status of the filing by the Jenkins firm "is not competent and it doesn't inspire confidence," Kaehny said.
Senate GOP Leader Rob Ortt, R-Niagara County, said state government needs more effective and independent ethics oversight than what is being provided.
"It’s clear that JCOPE has not been an acceptable or effective ethics enforcement body — never more abundantly clear than in light of recent scandals engulfing the governor," Ortt said. "There is a serious appetite for real ethics reform and a partisan commission controlled by the Governor is not the answer.”
A bill sponsored by Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, aims to replace both JCOPE and a legislative ethics committee with an independent integrity commission, which would be set up similar to an agency that probes alleged judicial misconduct.
Krueger's bill notes that polling shows more than 80% of New York registered voters believe corruption is a problem in state government.
"A government free of corruption not only protects the people as taxpayers against waste and misuse of funds, but also helps to secure their liberties against all forms of abuse of power and self-aggrandizing behavior that occur in defiance of the rights of the people," her bill states.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org