Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday expressed support for Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore as head of the state’s ethics watchdog agency amid allegations that she helped her housekeeper get public assistance.
“I’ll leave that to Westchester County to sort out. And I’ll stay out of the county’s process and stay out of the local politics,” Cuomo said following a news conference.
“But I think the chairperson, having a sitting district attorney and in particular Janet DiFiore, the Westchester County district attorney, I have total confidence in that decision.”
Cuomo picked DiFiore late last year to serve as chairwoman of the new Joint Committee on Public Ethics.
The panel, however, has been embattled from the start, and Cuomo said Wednesday he will look to make changes to the rules of the board – particularly how it deals with complaints against public officials.
On Monday, media reports surfaced that the county’s Department of Social Services is probing whether DiFiore used her influence to get her family’s live-in housekeeper food stamps, Medicaid benefits and cash assistance.
DiFiore has denied the claims, and Cuomo said he would let any investigation be handled by county officials. But he cautioned that the allegations appear to have “political overtones” to them.
He said DiFiore has a strong reputation and dismissed that she wasn’t probably vetted for the JCOPE post.
“What else could you have possibly done?” Cuomo said. “She’s an elected district attorney of Westchester County, head of the district attorney’ association for the state of New York with an impeccable reputation.”
JCOPE meets Thursday in Albany. The ethics commission was established last year to much fanfare by lawmakers and Cuomo.
But it has faced questions about whether it lacks enough transparency. Earlier this month, the panel was accused of potentially leaking information about a possible investigation into Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton.
Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan, a Democrat, filed a complaint in April against Libous after a witness in a Yonkers corruption trial alleged that Libous used his influence to get his son a job at a Westchester law firm.
Cuomo said he has a problem with the “running commentary” from JCOPE about his potential investigations. He said the panel, and the laws that govern it, need to weigh the public’s right to know and its ability to investigate ethics allegations in private.
“I believe that’s going to be an ongoing process,” Cuomo said. “I can see already certain changes that have to be made.”