ALBANY – A federal prosecutor who has built a reputation as one of Albany’s top corruption-busters took possession Thursday of a truckload of documents from an investigatory panel that was created last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo but then disbanded as part of the new state budget.
Where the trail might lead for Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District in New York, is unclear, but the seasoned prosecutor said his team would take up the work of a state anti-corruption commission that he said was “unceremoniously” – and possibly for political reasons – put out of business prematurely last week by Cuomo and state lawmakers.
Bharara also did not rule out looking at allegations that have surfaced in recent months that the Cuomo administration may have unduly influenced the work of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption.
The panel Thursday afternoon turned over testimony, emails and other materials it obtained over the past nine months since Cuomo formed it – signaling that possible legal cases against more state lawmakers or officials could hang over Albany for months to come.
Word of Bharara’s actions comes just a week after all of Albany thought the work of the Moreland Commission was going to simply evaporate. Cuomo last week said the commission was being eliminated because lawmakers, after rebuffing him last year, agreed in the new budget to stronger ethics and campaign finance provisions.
When Bharara was asked whether Cuomo’s office could be part of any future probe, he told WNYC, a New York radio station, “If there are questions that are appropriate to ask … there are strong-willed and aggressive, but fair, people in my office who will ask those questions.”
The federal prosecutor said he asked that the Moreland Commission turn over documents and other information uncovered during its brief investigation because there was an “appearance that cases were being bargained away in exchange for a political deal.”
Bharara said the public has to be assured that any investigative body formed is independent. He noted that Cuomo formed the Moreland Commission last year with “great fanfare” but that the panel was “unceremoniously” shut down last week – and possibly, he suggested, with active investigations of potential wrongdoing left unresolved.
Bharara, who was the first witness to testify in a public hearing before the Moreland Commission about the problems of government corruption in New York, said there were numerous suggestions that the commission’s work would continue for at least a year or two. “The plain facts are that it was disbanded before its time. Nine months may be the proper gestational period for a child, but in our experience it is not the amount of time necessary for a public corruption prosecution to mature,” he said.
The prosecutor said the documents his office obtained may not lead to further legal action or could, with the time needed for an in-depth investigation that he said was not afforded to the Moreland Commission’s members, result in new anti-corruption legal avenues not yet known.
“If there are cases to bring that are appropriate to bring, we’ll bring them,” he said, adding another option could be referring to other agencies, such as local prosecutors in the state. “We just want to get our hands on the files and make sure that the work is getting done, because that was not clear to me last week,” Bharara said.
In an April 3 letter to the heads of the Moreland Commission, Bharara said the panel was being shut down “prematurely” and that it was clear from public comments of some commission members that active investigations were still under way when Cuomo announced the panel’s demise.
It was clear from the governor and lawmakers last week that a trade was made to end the Moreland Commission’s work in return for new measures, such as more public disclosure of the outside income activities of state lawmakers, tougher bribery laws and a ban on elected officials from holding public office again if they are convicted of a felony.
“I don’t think legislation is a panacea,” Bharara said.
The Moreland Commission’s effectiveness and impartiality also has been questioned in Western New York after officials and private citizens said their complaints were ignored. Betty Jean Grant, minority leader of the County Legislature, has indicated on several occasions that detailed complaints she submitted on a political committee called the WNY Progressive Caucus with close ties to Buffalo political operative G. Steven Pigeon – a close Cuomo ally – were ignored.
“I just wanted to express my extreme displeasure at the Moreland Commission,” Grant said last month on the commission’s failure to act on her complaint. “To not even receive a reply … ”
Mark A. Sacha, a former Erie County assistant district attorney who also filed a complaint and testified before the commission in Albany, also has been critical. He pointed out he also never received an acknowledgement of his complaints about the WNY Progressive Caucus activities, as well as that the commission never held hearings in Buffalo.
His complaints and those of Grant, however, have now been turned over the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation after the state Board of Elections voted last month to investigate whether the caucus violated election law by exceeding spending limits or coordinating its activities with specific campaigns.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported Wednesday night that a commission member, who was not identified, said there had been meddling in the panel’s investigations by two of Cuomo’s top advisers: Lawrence Schwartz and Mylan Denerstein. The Times quoted the commissioner as saying the officials would “routinely” call and say, “How can you issue a subpoena like this?” or “These people shouldn’t be on it.”
The Times, as has previously been disclosed, reported Cuomo personally met with the commission twice last fall. The paper said the Governor’s Office persuade the commission to delay issuing subpoenas to two groups with political ties to Cuomo – a New York City real estate developers’ group and the Committee to Save New York.
Matt Wing, a Cuomo spokesman, was quoted by the Times in response: “The Times’ dependence on anonymous sources is once again turning their stories into fiction.”
In a Wednesday letter, Bharara asked the heads of the Moreland Commission for documents that include “materials from third parties, work product and electronic communications.”
Commission Co-chairmen Milton Williams and William Fitzpatrick responded Thursday that several referrals of the panel’s work already have been sent to federal and state prosecutors and that it also would cooperate with Bharara’s request for documents.
“We are very pleased that your office will continue the valuable work that the commission started,’’ the co-chairmen wrote to Bharara, who was nominated in 2009 by President Obama to be the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, which takes in the counties of Sullivan, Rockland, Putnam, Orange, Dutchess and Westchester as well as the Bronx and Manhattan.
That Bharara’s office, which boasts a staff of 220 prosecutors involved in everything from terrorism and corruption cases to gang violence and Wall Street financial fraud, now has the evidence gathered by the Moreland Commission over the past nine months is a significant development in his office’s interest in corruption cases in Albany. Bharara’s cases have already snagged several now-former state lawmakers and local officials in public corruption cases.
Cuomo appeared Thursday afternoon at the Main-Transit Fire Company in Amherst to tout the merits of the new state budget. But he did not take questions from a large group of reporters.
Thursday afternoon in Rochester, however, the governor was asked four times by the same New York Times reporter about the matter, including how it is in the public’s interest to disrupt ongoing investigations by the Moreland panel. Each time, Cuomo had the same basic answer.
“It was a temporary commission. I was not creating a perpetual bureaucracy,” Cuomo said of the panel that he created via executive order last July 2. He said he made publicly clear that he would establish the panel in 2013 if lawmakers did not pass certain campaign finance and ethics provisions he wanted. Lawmakers, however, challenged the legal reach claimed by Cuomo’s panel, saying such powers are given to investigate executive branch functions, not a separate branch of government, such as the Legislature.
When lawmakers last month agreed to certain campaign finance and ethics law changes, Cuomo said he was only keeping his word to disband the Moreland Commission.
“I don’t believe we needed another bureaucracy for enforcement. We needed laws changed, and that’s what Moreland (Commission) was about,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo drew several hundred people to his Amherst event, where he and local state legislators praised the new $139 billion budget as the end of “dysfunction” in Albany and a signal to the rest of the nation that New York is committed to ending its reputation as a high tax state. The budget also shows the state no longer harbors an “anti-business mentality” or fails to pay attention to upstate, he said.
“We have just started to see the renaissance that Western New York is going to go through,” he said.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is seeking the Republican nomination to run against Cuomo, on Thursday called the Moreland Commission “doomed from the start” and said it was “built on a lie, and everyone knew it.” He renewed a call for Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the way Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver resolved a sexual harassment case involving a former lawmaker.
News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org