Gov. Cuomo's Moreland Act Commission follows in father's footsteps

Jul 10, 2013

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s call for a Moreland Act Commission to investigate the legislature is not the first time a governor created a panel to probe state lawmakers. In fact, Cuomo’s own father did it a quarter century ago, with mixed results.

When Andrew Cuomo’s father, Mario Cuomo, was governor back in the 1980s, he also called on the powers in the now 100-year-old Moreland Act to appoint a commission to look into government corruption.

It was chaired by the respected former Fordham Law School Dean John Feerick, and it issued several reports with recommendations for change that were widely praised at the time by reform groups and newspaper editorials.

In fact the proposals were so good that groups like the League of Women Voters are still drawing on them to this day, says the League’s Barbara Bartoletti. “The whole pay-to-play culture,” she said. “The high contribution levels, all the way down. ”

But, Bartoletti says, that’s just the problem. While the Feerick Commission was successful in documenting the campaign fundraising system’s problems and recommending ways to improve it, it failed in actually persuading the state legislature to adopt the vast majority of the proposals.

Cuomo has appointed a panel that includes many of the state’s district attorneys. They will be probing the campaign filings at the New York State Board of Elections. Bartoletti says the board, made up of two Democrats and two Republicans, is gridlocked and has not attempted to enforce current campaign filing laws in years.  

Bartoletti, who is an advisor to the new Moreland Act Commission named by Cuomo earlier this month, says she hopes this generations’ commission  has a better track record.

Bruce Gyory, political consultant and SUNY Albany professor, says despite some of the governor’s rhetoric, the commission will not function like a U.S. Attorney’s office by handing up indictments and revealing shocking charges.

“The first thing we ought to disabuse people of is the notion that a Moreland Act Commission is functionally a prosecutorial body,” Gyory said.

Although, if the commission finds any blatant criminal wrongdoing, it can forward it to the district attorneys for prosecution.

Gyory says the commission can be an effective tool, if used right, to get the legislature to respond to the reforms this time around.

“Through its broad investigatory powers, it puts together a report that enables the governor to get in the Bully pulpit,” Gyory said. “And mobilizes the public opinion in a way that moves the legislature to act.”

Bartoletti says the current climate of corruption, which has resulted in the indictment, resignation or imprisonment of 35 Senators and Assembly members in the past decade, including several in 2013, has raised public awareness.   New Yorkers recently told a Siena poll that cleaning up corruption was their number one priority. She says they’ll have to keep the pressure on their elected officials in the 2014 election season to persuade the legislature to change a system that provides incumbents with many benefits.  

“The public has to get so fed up that they decide that they have to force their elected representatives to change the culture in Albany,” Bartoletti said. “That’s the only way that this is going to happen.”

She says the majority of lawmakers who are clean also have incentive to sign on, so they aren’t tainted by the seemingly constant scandals.

Gyory says the governor has to be careful of just one thing, that he doesn’t go too far and alienate the legislature completely, by using the Moreland Act commission to try to settle political scores.  But, Gyory says, if the governor has public opinion on his side, he could use the results of the commission to help win a “resounding victory” in his 2014 reelection campaign.

“That has a way of replenishing political capital,” he said.

He says for any governor to ultimately win changes from a Moreland Commission probe is a “heavy lift.”