A rise in ethics rules waivers: a sign the system is working?

COIB Waivers

Conflicts of Interest Board waivers granted annually.

The city’s Conflicts of Interest Board is one of the last places one might expect to find entertaining reading material. But in the dimly lit reception area, anyone can pore through the fairy-tale story of one NYPD police officer’s journey to marry the love he met on the beat in 2008.

This wasn’t just any wedding, but an all-expenses-paid shindig by the department store Macy’s, including the gown, tuxedo, rings, cake, catering, bridal flowers, wedding ceremony and service. Moise Naolo had been assigned to patrol Midtown South, and while on duty, he met his future fiancé in front of the Macy’s flower show windows. A year later, he proposed to her back at the same spot, and upon his request, the department store participated by inscribing the proposal on the window. In March at this year’s flower show, Macy’s offered to sponsor the couple’s wedding — a pretty decent $25,000 gift — “in the spirit of finding true love.”

But because Macy’s has business dealings with the city and with the NYPD, Naolo’s acceptance of the gift would have violated city ethics laws. Naolo thus had to file for a request to get a waiver from COIB, stating that he had not used his City position to receive benefits, nor was Macy’s looking to gain City business through the wedding sponsorship.

This past winter, the ethics board granted Naolo a waiver to accept Macy’s gift of the wedding. It may grant such waivers upon the written approval of the head of the agency or agencies involved and a finding by the board that the proposed position or action “would not be in conflict with the purposes and interests of the city.”

The Conflicts of Interest Board, which is empowered to permit actions by public officials that would otherwise have violated City ethics laws, granted 234 such waivers last year. It was the second-highest number of such exceptions granted in almost two decades, accounting for about four out of every ten requests received.

 Some waivers, like Naolo’s, permit activities that push the boundaries of acceptable practice; a number of them allow officials holding paid positions in companies that had contracts with their own agencies. But most concern mundane requests: city officials being allowed to teach in and be paid by universities; even two employees of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation having to file the waiver paperwork just so they could carpool and split gas, parking and toll fees legally. (Without that, they would have stepped afoul of the ethics laws on how “no public servant shall enter into a financial relationship with a superior or subordinate employee.”)

But while waiver grants are available for public perusal, waiver rejections — which, in 2010, added up about half of the year’s requests — are not, which means that outsiders cannot identify would-be lawbreakers who had sought to carry out forbidden actions only to be shot down. The Conflicts of Interest Board wants to encourage agencies to be comfortable with seeking advice from the board, a trust that might be compromised if rejections were made public.

And just because someone receives the panel’s blessing for an otherwise forbidden activity does not mean that they’re in the clear. Conflicts of Interest Board executive director Mark Davies noted that the waivers are based on the circumstances of each case as disclosed by the agency’s board and employees involved. These are not verified independently by the board. Instead, the conflicts board and the city Department of Investigation rely heavily on the media and whistleblowers to flag government employees who end up breaking the law.

“We don’t go checking if what they’ve told us is true — we don’t have the manpower to do that,” said Davies. Only 20 staffers currently oversee some 132,000 public officials in the city.

Davies suggests the rise in waivers is a sign not of disregard for ethics law, but respect for it. City employees and agencies, he says, are increasingly open to seeking advice from the board instead of taking their chances on their own — “Which is a good thing, you know.”

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