ALBANY – Nearly a quarter century after leading the last panel to investigate government corruption, John Feerick is pushing again to get one of the reforms his commission proposed when a different Cuomo held the governor’s office: public financing of political campaigns.
The former dean of the Fordham law school is urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature to embrace public campaign financing as one tool to combat the influence of money on the political system. Feerick headed for three years what was known as the Feerick Commission,
“I just felt out of a sense of duty to put out those recommendations again," Feerick said in an interview with The Buffalo News of the campaign reform ideas he and his fellow commissioners suggested when it was empaneled from 1987 to 1990.
The role of money in races, particularly statewide campaigns, drives his belief that public financing is as relevant a tool as a generation ago, said Feerick, whose panel went head-to-head with some of the top politicians of the day.
“I do, based on what I saw as the massive amounts of money that go into statewide races," Feerick said.
With Cuomo’s Moreland Commission on Public Corruption due to release soon a set of preliminary ideas to improve the state’s election and campaign finance process, Feerick believes the New York City public financing system can be a model.
“I think the experience we’ve had with the city program should be replicated in some fashion on a statewide basis,” Feerick said.
Critics, including Unshackle Upstate, which released a report Monday critical of public campaign financing, say the public financing of politics is a waste of valuable taxpayer money that could go to other programs, has been far from perfect in New York City and sends taxes to candidates whose ideas residents don’t support. And they note that for all the touting of the benefits of public campaign financing in New York City, the city mayor’s office has been run for three terms by one of the top ten richest Americans who pumped huge sums of his personal wealth into winning.
Cuomo and Democrats who lead the Assembly support public campaign financing.
But Republicans, who partially control the Senate, say the public campaign financing is unworkable, expensive and will end up giving more political power to labor unions.
Feerick believes, however, that public financing is just one tool the state could use to restore public trust of the campaign process.
Feerick, who still teaches law and heads a social justice and dispute resolution center at Fordham, said he was recently approached by Susan Lerner, head of Common Cause/NY, to share his views publicly on the issue of campaign finance as the current Moreland panel gets ready to release its recommendations. In a statement he provided to Lerner and other advocates pushing for a public campaign finance law, Feerick noted that his commission’s final 1990 report called New York’s campaign finance system a “disgrace” and “embarrassment."
Using subpoena power and with the help of public input at 25 hearings, the Feerick Commission a generation ago made public the internal money raising techniques of everyone from Mario Cuomo to then-Comptroller Ned Regan, both of whom testified in public before Feerick. Like today’s Moreland panel, Feerick’s panel had wars with legislative leaders over the scope of the panel’s powers. In the end, many of the Feerick Commission’s ideas were cast aside over the years by political leaders.
Feerick said his panel’s ideas – limiting donations, better enforcement of campaign finance laws and starting at least a public funding system for statewide races and eventually legislative campaigns – are still relevant today.
“The earlier Moreland Act Commission ended its work on September 18, 1990, expressing the hope that ‘the governor and other New York leaders will give government ethics reforms the emphasis which they deserve and make this an era of reform.’ I reiterate that appeal today to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state leaders," he said in the statement provided to advocacy groups this week.
Feerick’s legal duties have included playing a key role in the mid-1960s in the legal drafting of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which dealt with presidential succession and presidential disabilities and how vice presidential vacancies are to be filled. He led a panel, created after a Buffalo News series, that prodded for improvements in how judges get onto the bench in New York. In 2006, he was co-chair of the public integrity committee for Andrew Cuomo’s transition team as attorney general.
But it was his Feerick Commission that consumed three years of his life, and today he readily acknowledges little in the way of major election and campaign finance reforms have occurred in Albany over the past 20 years.
“The agenda of our commission is still a very worthy and important agenda for the times in which we live," he said in the interview.