A top-level commission armed with subpoena power and the authority to investigate anything and everything is about to examine New York’s often sordid brand of politics and government.
And because the state’s new “Moreland Commission” is conceived and organized by two of the state’s most powerful figures – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman – it’s almost a sure bet that recommendations will come to radically reform the way the state’s politicians and government officials behave.
So may indictments.
“That’s certainly contemplated by the executive order,” Schneiderman said Wednesday in a phone interview with The Buffalo News.
And after failing to gain passage of a reform package he submitted to the State Legislature, Cuomo made good on his promise to instead create a Commission to Investigate Public Corruption under authority granted by the 1907 Moreland Act. In fact, the governor hinted Wednesday that the commission may prove even more effective than the legislation would have.
“This is a very, very powerful option that was at my disposal,” Cuomo said.
“So I wanted a really sweeping resolution either way – legislative or Moreland.”
The governor said the panel will ask basic questions about how state officials act.
“They haven’t designed a perfect human being yet, and you will have politicians doing bad things,” Cuomo told reporters after an address to about 75 invited guests in the University at Buffalo Law School library. “The question is: Do you have a system in place that when someone does the wrong thing, they get caught and prosecuted?
“Do you have a system in place that is designing a better way to remove the loopholes, et cetera, so that it is harder for people to do the wrong thing? And that’s what I want addressed.”
The newest Moreland Commission includes prosecutors and legal experts from across the state. Cuomo described them as the “best and the brightest … the all-star team.”
He said they will probe “systemic corruption and the appearance of such corruption in state government, political campaigns and elections in New York State.”
All have been appointed as deputy attorneys general by Schneiderman, which he said grants them the authority to reach into any level of state or local government.
“It’s an incredibly talented group of people who will make it very hard for anyone to attack as partisan or biased in any way,” the attorney general said.
He predicted that the panel will submit by its Dec. 1 reporting deadline a series of recommendations that could, for example, reform the current system of campaign finance.
“The laws now are essentially a welcome wagon for ‘pay-to-play’ schemes,” he said.
Schneiderman also cited the state Board of Elections and its inability to investigate many complaints as a state agency ripe for reform. He called such inadequacies “an invitation to misconduct.”
“It’s good to catch bad guys after they’ve done something, but better to prevent crimes before they take place,” he said.
Three prominent law enforcement figures will head the panel: Onondaga County District Attorney William J. Fitzpatrick, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen M. Rice and Milton L. Williams Jr., a former state and federal prosecutor.
Included among his appointees are two Western New Yorkers, Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, and Makau W. Mutua, dean of the UB Law School. Both spoke at the event Wednesday.
Special advisers to the commission include State Police Superintendent Joseph A. D’Amico, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and former Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau.
Cuomo had submitted the bills to address the influence of money in elections, strengthen prosecutors’ ability to fight corruption, increase penalties and give voters more access to the ballot box.
No action was taken by the Legislature.
The governor accepted responsibility Wednesday for the bill’s failure to pass the Legislature because he acknowledged he would not compromise.
“I said, on this one, I am unwilling to compromise because I want the toughest reform package this state has ever passed,” he said, adding he does not believe that the Legislature viewed the situation with his level of concern and urgency.
But he also said he has ultimate confidence in the new panel he has given “a simple mandate: Clean up Albany.”
“If someone did the wrong thing, prosecute them; if we have to make changes, tell us what,” he said.
Cuomo reiterated his contention that New Yorkers should have trust in their government and a mechanism to examine and change practices that weaken the relationship between the people and its government.
“There have been four or five months recently when almost every week, you pick up a newspaper and it shows where another legislator is in trouble,” he said.
“We want to restore that trust. Why? Because I want the relationship intact.”
Schneiderman echoed those thoughts.
“The people in New York State have had enough,” he said. “They’re tired of talk, and they’re tired of excuses. We clearly have a system that makes it far too easy to engage in misconduct.”