New York's First Female Secretary to the Governor Faces Ethical Minefield

By Mike VilenskyFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

When the New York Senate and Assembly hit an impasse over budget negotiations earlier this month, Melissa DeRosa, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's chief of staff, headed late in the evening to the Senate office to try to work it out.

As Ms. DeRosa huddled inside a closed-door meeting, an Albany lobbyist paced outside the office: Giorgio DeRosa, Ms. DeRosa's father, and a familiar face around the Capitol.

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Ms. DeRosa and her father have become two of Albany's most influential figures, leading to questions about how they keep their jobs at a distance.

With Ms. DeRosa promoted on Monday to the top position in Mr. Cuomo's office, she is facing calls for more disclosure and said she is taking steps to allay concerns.

"There's no perfect solution," said Blair Horner, the director of state government watchdog New York Public Interest Research Group, "but it's up to the governor to make sure it's handled properly. The best way to deal with it is to seek an outside opinion, and live within the spirit and the letter of that guidance."

On Wednesday, Ms. DeRosa's office said that is what she is doing. Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Ms. DeRosa, who is 34 years old, is "actively engaged" with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the state's ethics-advisory agency, "to ensure that even the appearance of impropriety is avoided" ahead of her starting her new position later this year.

A spokesman for the Joint Commission, or JCOPE, said the agency routinely provides guidance to state employees but such correspondences are confidential so he couldn't comment on Ms. DeRosa.

"This is not a new issue for me -- my father went into this line of work over 25 years ago, and I have been involved in government and politics for over a decade," Ms. DeRosa said in an email. "I have fully complied with the public-officers law recusal policy for years and am working with JCOPE to ensure the highest standards are met as I take on this new role."

The governor's office also provided a memo from the Executive Chamber Ethics Officer that Ms. DeRosa signed in 2015, saying she has "voluntarily recused" herself from any matters involving clients she "know[s] to be represented by Bolton-St. Johns," the lobbying firm where her father is a partner and her brother also is employed.

But because of Ms. DeRosa's great sway in the governor's orbit, and the sprawling list of clients represented by her father's firm, it would be difficult for her to have nothing to do with any of them, and she will have to navigate tricky circumstances, analysts said.

Ms. DeRosa would be the first woman to hold the position of Secretary to the Governor, replacing Bill Mulrow, a 61-year old former executive at Blackstone Group who is returning to the firm.

On Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo said Ms. DeRosa "is one of the young superstars in the business. Her father is a longtime, well-known lobbyist in Albany. Everybody knows that. So, I don't see the issue whatsoever. People recuse themselves from items all the time."

Among the Bolton-St. Johns's clients are labor unions, tech firms, pharmaceutical companies, and dozens of other entities that are affected by state legislation, according to lobbyist filings disclosed by the Joint Commission and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

For example, Bolton-St. Johns represents the 1199 SEIU Healthcare Workers East labor union, the filings show. That union was among a coalition that rallied for a $15 minimum wage last year, legislation Ms. DeRosa herself "spearheaded," according to the governor's news release announcing her new job.

Bolton-St. John's clients also have faced setbacks on Mr. Cuomo's watch. Airbnb, another client of the firm according to state records, criticized legislation Mr. Cuomo signed last year that restricts how the service can be used in New York City.

Mr. DeRosa himself has met with Mr. Cuomo on occasion, according to retroactively released public schedules for the governor reviewed by The Journal. In one instance, they met in March of 2014 with the president of the corrections officers union, a client of Bolton-St. John's.

Ms. DeRosa, who served as Mr. Cuomo's communications director at the time, wasn't present for those meetings, according to the schedules.

Mr. Cuomo attended Ms. DeRosa's wedding last year to Matt Wing, along with Mr. DeRosa, people present said. Ms. DeRosa sought the Joint Commission's guidance about Mr. Cuomo's attendance, her office said.

Mr. Wing, a former Cuomo aide, is now an executive at Uber, providing an additional set of ethics concerns for watchdogs.

His name was listed among the company's lobbyists this year as it successfully sought approval to expand throughout New York, according to a letter provided by Uber to the Joint Commission and reviewed by The Journal. An Uber spokesman said he wasn't involved in pushing the state legislation and was listed there out of an "abundance of caution" as he transitioned roles from New York matters to national issues.

The 2015 memo Ms. DeRosa signed also said she "voluntarily recused herself from any matters involving Uber" and will continue to do so. But because Uber played a significant role in this year's budget talks, Ms. DeRosa was present when Mr. Cuomo announced a deal with the Legislature involving that issue and the other budget holdups, and at public events where Mr. Cuomo discussed the company.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 20, 2017 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)