The Times Union
October 12, 2013
A state commission probing political corruption hits obstacles, including the governor.
The public deserves an unfettered, uncompromising investigation.
After just three months, there are unsettling signs that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Moreland Commission probing corruption in New York’s political culture is running out of steam.
An effort that began full of hope that it would embarrass lawmakers into reforming New York’s misdeed-tainted political system is instead in danger of becoming an embarrassment itself.
How did we get to this? How did a commission full of legal muscle — appointed by the governor with the state attorney general’s backing, loaded with district attorneys and other legal experts — end up seemingly as ineffective as the system it was supposed to expose?
Mr. Cuomo created the commission in July after the Legislature closed its session with no progress on campaign finance and election reform. It was hardly for want of ideas. There was a broad, solid proposal from the Senate Independent Democratic Conference, and some rather less comprehensive ideas from Mr. Cuomo and Assembly Democrats. But Senate Republicans again blocked the effort, unabashedly favoring the current sky-high contribution limits and abhorring public financing of campaigns.
Mr. Cuomo, meanwhile, was inexplicably unwilling to do what he had promised during his campaign — give the attorney general full authority to investigate and prosecute election law violations. Instead, keeping his own hand firmly on the wheel, he created a commission with the power to issue subpoenas and take testimony under oath; Attorney General Eric Schneiderman made every member a special deputy attorney general.
The panel was to investigate misconduct among public officials and recommend changes to election and campaign fundraising laws. It came on like gangbusters, with demands for information from lawmakers — many of whom are lawyers — about outside sources of income, including clients’ names. The Assembly and Senate balked, and the commission hasn’t pressed toward what could be a legal showdown.
The commission also began looking into hefty tax breaks for some real estate developers who were big donors to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign. Then came disturbing news reports that the commission pulled back subpoenas for some developers at the demand of the governor and his staff. Mr. Cuomo, it was reported, has overruled the commission’s co-chairs and tinkered with its upcoming recommendations.
Now comes word that the commission might give up after suggesting a constitutional amendment to create a system of public financing of campaigns — a process that would kick this can two to three years down the road, assuming the idea could get through a legislature that has already proven unable to pass it.
What gives, Mr. Cuomo?
As dismal as this all is, it may not be too late for this commission to succeed — if Mr. Cuomo can keep his hands off it, regardless of whose feathers get ruffled, and if the commissioners haven’t lost their vision of the original goal and their will to do something about it.
If not, Mr. Cuomo should be prepared to own a failure as embarrassing as the system he vowed to fix.