Pei Pei Cheng-de Castro, the Director of Investigation and Enforcement at the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, has had a diverse career in which public service has remained a constant. Education has also been at the core of Cheng-de Castro’s career—she taught legal writing at New York Law School, founded a charter school, and now works for an agency that educates public officials on ethics laws as part of its mission.
Cheng-de Castro was born in Taiwan and raised in Southern California. After studying economics, environmental science, and education at U.C. Berkeley, she attended New York Law School with the goal of working for non-profit organizations and government agencies.
During law school, Cheng-de Castro interned at the NYC Department of Buildings and MFY Legal Services (now Mobilization for Justice), a non-profit, independent legal services provider for low-income New Yorkers. At MFY Legal Services, Cheng-de Castro represented a victim of domestic violence in family law matters, and also helped low-income tenants who were being evicted. She also worked in New York Law School’s Civil Rights Clinic on a political asylum case, where she met her husband, César de Castro. Cheng-de Castro recalls that the limiting role of being an intern left her wanting to do more to help others.
Cheng-de Castro was exposed to municipal issues through writing for CityLaw as a law student and as New York Law School’s CityLaw Fellow. After completing her Fellowship year in 2001, Cheng-de Castro went on to be a litigator at Peluso & Touger, a small firm where her colleagues became like family. At Peluso & Touger, she worked on issues ranging from commercial real estate to criminal defense, but always made time to volunteer on other matters. The bulk of her pro bono work involved aiding pro se tenants in New York City Housing Court; she was also very active in the Asian American Legal Defense Fund.
In 2012, with a group of friends and colleagues, she helped start the Central Queens Academy Charter School, and still sits on the school’s Board of Trustees. Central Queens Academy primarily serves immigrant children who do not speak English as their first language or who are the first English speakers in their families. Coming from a family of immigrants herself, Cheng-de Castro understands the value of creating a school that promotes diversity as well as college and career success. The school serves around 400 middle school students from grades five through eight. In the 2016-2017 New York State assessments, Central Queens Academy outperformed every charter middle school in Queens on Math and English Language Arts proficiency.
In 2013, Cheng-de Castro left private practice to work for the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or “JCOPE,” was formally constituted in 2011 to replace the New York Commission on Public Integrity. JCOPE administers and interprets the State’s ethics laws for over 250,000 public employees, members of the legislature, employees of the legislature, and lobbyists. JCOPE initiates and conducts investigations and processes 200-300 matters a year.
Cheng-de Castro started as a senior investigative counsel and was promoted to Director of Investigations and Enforcement. She oversees and works with a team of investigators and associate counsels who handle complaints received or matters initiated by the Commission alleging violations of state ethics and lobbying laws. Her team is responsible for all aspects of an investigation, from evaluating complaints through enforcement. Cheng-de Castro finds the investigative and litigation assignments rewarding, but cannot disclose the nature of this work. JCOPE employees can be criminally charged if they reveal confidential information.
In addition to investigations, she helped manage the creation, writing, and editing of a comprehensive JCOPE book that educates public officials and lobbying entities on the ethics laws that govern their conduct. The book will first be distributed at a special CLE on state ethics on October 26, 2017 at New York Law School.
Of great importance to Cheng-de Castro is building relationships and helping people accomplish what is important to them—this is her main inspiration in working as a lawyer, in both the public and private sector. She stressed that the key to being successful and happy in the legal profession is collegiality with co-workers. She encourages lawyers to “always try what you want to do” at any point in their careers, no matter the sacrifice. What Cheng-de Castro loves most about lawyering is the ability to learn new areas of law and expand her knowledge by applying her fundamental legal skills to different scenarios. Her story is living proof of the adage, “you can do anything you set your mind to.”
By: Shelby Hoffman