Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo today labeled his Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption an “overwhelming success,” citing its “independence” and relying on a new statement of support from the panel’s co-chairman to counter any claims of political interference from his office.
In what may have ranked as the most important press conference of his career, conducted before a phalanx of reporters in the University at Buffalo’s Harriman Hall, Cuomo attempted to counter last week’s New York Times story outlining alleged administration actions designed to thwart any probe of him or political allies.
He stopped short of refuting the entirety of the story, but insisted that today’s statement by commission Co-chairman William J. Fitzpatrick – the Republican district attorney of Onondaga County – corroborated his claim that the commission accomplished all it aimed for by obtaining a host of ethics reforms.
“Now we have facts we can actually deal with,” he said of the Fitzpatrick letter, occasionally aiming barbs at a Times reporter in attendance and calling the premise of interference “false.”
The governor said he ended the Moreland Commission, despite it being “a phenomenal success,” because “I don’t believe this state needs another expensive prosecutor’s office.”
“Is it perfect? No,” Cuomo said of the commission. “Is there more to do? Yes ... But it worked.”
The governor’s main point was that “conversation” often occurred between his office and the commission, because it was a panel created by him.
“It was 100 percent independent. Did I talk to people? Of course I talked to people. It would be unintelligent not to talk to people,” he said. “The best evidence of independence is when someone from the second floor [his Capitol office] says ‘Why don’t you do this?’
“And then the chairman says ‘I disagree, I don’t want to do that,’ ” Cuomo continued. “That’s not a sign of interference. This is demonstrable proof of independence.”
Cuomo said he viewed the article’s description of interference as “conversation and advice.”
“By the executive order that set it up, they were talking to and reporting to the Executive Chamber,” he said. “The question is: Did they act independently? Chairman Fitzpatrick says 100 percent.”
Indeed, the district attorney today corroborated Cuomo’s claims of independence, and insisted that he and the other co-chairs would have resigned in the face of overt interference.
“The bottom line is that nobody ‘interfered’ with me or my co-chairs,” Fitzpatrick said. “Frankly, for those who do not know me well, the suggestion is absurd.”
He also reiterated the governor’s contention that the commission was designed as “temporary” in nature and that its purpose was to obtain the ethics reforms – however limited they were – from the State Legislature.
“The Moreland commissioners produced a report that should serve as a template for any legislative body serious about ethics reform,” Fitzpatrick said, “a report that serves as a roadmap for any prosecutorial agency serious about rooting out public corruption.”
The Times reported last week that Larry Schwartz, secretary to the governor, worked to quash subpoenas issued by the commission as it zeroed in on a media firm that once worked for Cuomo’s campaign. The newspaper’s three-month investigation concluded that the Governor’s Office compromised the commission’s work by objecting whenever it focused on groups close to Cuomo or on issues important to him.
The Times reported that the Governor’s Office interfered with the commission as it probed politically allied groups, and that the panel never tried to investigate anyone in the Cuomo administration.
It also said that Cuomo aides “repeatedly pressured” the commission, made up to a large degree of top prosecutors from around the state who “thought they had been given a once-in-a-career chance at cleaning up Albany.”
Cuomo would not answer a question about whether he or anyone on his staff has been contacted by investigators such as U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of Manhattan, who has picked up the mantle of the Moreland investigation and issued subpoenas to staffers of State Sen. George D. Maziarz of Newfane with questions about the use of his campaign fund.
He said he does not comment on the investigations of others.
He also said he does not believe he will lose any votes in the upcoming election due to the controversy. That contention was expected to be challenged later today when Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino and running mate Christopher Moss end a statewide series of press conferences in Buffalo.
Earlier in the day during stops in Utica, Syracuse and Rochester, Astorino took the opportunity to again lambaste Cuomo and his Moreland Commission controversy. He also criticized Democratic Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who also sat on the panel.
“Only in New York could the anti-corruption commission become corrupted by a governor steering investigations away from himself and his political funders,” said Astorino, the Westchester County executive. “We are only at the tip of the iceberg in this Moreland/AG commission scandal, and already it is clear that Albany needs a complete ethics overhaul.”
Cuomo came to Buffalo to announce that Liazon plans to add 500 local jobs. The Buffalo-based company, which is located in the rehabilitated Fairmont Creamery building at Michigan Avenue and Scott Street, operates private health insurance exchanges.
Ashok Subramanian, chief executive officer of the company and a Western New York native, announced the company’s hires will be made over the next five years.
It is part of the governor’s Start-Up NY initiative.
Cuomo also spoke to reporters on other matters, including the state’s new medical marijuana law.
The New York program will not be up and running for at least 18 months, far too long to help those who need immediate help.
Advocates of the law want the state to expedite the availability of a strain of medical marijuana designed to help children with seizure disorders.
Cuomo, when asked about it, said “if we set up a system that goes bad or has flaws, we could inadvertently distribute marihuana illegally.”
“We want to do it as quickly as possible, but we have to do it right,” he said.
On Sunday, Cuomo announced that the state-funded $21.2 million renovation to SUNY Buffalo State’s Caudell Hall is underway, although the project had been announced previously as part of nearly $350 million in new construction and renovations to the campus.
The 52-year-old building will have modernized space for four programs in Buffalo State’s School of the Professions – hospitality and tourism, dietetics and nutrition, social work and speech-language pathology.
Construction is expected to be completed by the summer of 2016.
News Staff Reporter Shawn Campbell and News Business Reporter David Robinson contributed to this report.