News reports in recent days portray Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Moreland Act Commission on corruption as possibly going off the rails. Government reform groups say they are concerned and want some answers.
Cuomo appointed the Moreland Act Commission at the close of a legislative session that saw numerous lawmakers arrested, indicted and jailed for corruption, and with no agreement on any reform measures. Cuomo said at the time that he wanted wrongdoers punished, and commission co-chair, Syracuse area District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, described how that would be accomplished.
“Follow the money,” Fitzpatrick said on July 2.
But several published reports in recent days raise questions about the independence of the commission, and whether it is shielding its creator, Cuomo, from scrutiny. The New York Daily News reports that Cuomo’s aides suppressed subpoenas to the New York State Democratic Party and others, including the Real Estate Board of New York, that might result in a probe of campaign donations to the governor. But the campaign finance accounts of state Senate Republicans and Democrats have been subpoenaed.
In addition, the New York Times reports that commission chairs meet weekly with the governor’s staff.
Richard Brodsky, former state assemblyman and now a fellow at the Demos think tank and NYU’s Wagner School says the reports are disturbing. He says there are substantial questions that need answers.
“If the governor’s staff is directing subpoenas away from people who contributed to the governor and towards members of the legislature, then we have a serious problem,” Brodsky said.
Karen Scharff, with Citizen Action, is a major supporter of the commission, which she says has an historic opportunity to change Albany’s pay-to-play culture. But she says she’s also worried about what she’s heard lately.
“The rumors and the news reports are definitely very troubling,” Scharff said. "It makes me concerned that the commission may be starting to back off of their mission too quickly."
The reform group Common Cause sent a letter to Cuomo and his top aides, calling the news reports disheartening and reminding the governor that the commission was created to restore faith in government, not confirm public cynicism. Common Cause’s Susan Lerner says she still believes that the commission can right itself and stick to its original mission.
“I see this not as the beginning of the end,” said Lerner, who says she prefers to view it as a reinforcement of the original goals stated by Cuomo.
“That’s an important distinction,” Lerner said.
The New York Times also reports that Cuomo may be developing an exit strategy that would include negotiating a deal on a reform package with the legislature.
Scharff, with Citizen Action, says an agreement on comprehensive reform that includes matching donor public funding for candidates and strong enforcement of the campaign finance laws would be great. But she says she’s not so sure that would actually occur, and predicts a weaker bill would likely result.
“It would be a real lost opportunity and a misdirection of the powers that they’ve got,” Scharff said.
A spokeswoman for the commission points out that the law that created the Moreland Act in 1917 requires that the commission report back to the governor and the attorney general once a week.
Commission Co-chairman DA Fitzpatrick was not available for comment, but he’s said recently that any claims that the commission is not acting independently are categorically false.