ALBANY – New York State’s latest anti-corruption commission created by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo two months ago to root out wrongdoing and promote transparency has no public budget, and none of its spending is subject to taxpayer review.
But state records and interviews by the Associated Press show taxpayer costs associated with the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption are already piling up, including $270,000 allocated for its operations so far, the six-figure salaries of at least five staffers and an estimated $150,000 spent by the Legislature to hire three top law firms to confront the panel’s authority.
“The public has every right to know how the commission’s money is spent,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It really is up to the governor because the only way the commission can build public support for its ultimate recommendations is by not being the focus of controversy.”
Commission spokeswoman Michelle Duffy said it will continue to operate to “root out public corruption and make recommendations for systemic change.” She wouldn’t comment on the $270,000 allocation or say whether there would be additional spending.
She noted that commission staff was hired on pre-existing, vacant positions in the executive branch under Cuomo or is on loan from the Attorney General’s Office and relevant state agencies.
The salaries include Executive Director Regina Calcaterra, who is paid $175,000, and Chief of Investigations Elizabeth Danya Perry, who is paid $140,000, according to payroll data filed with the state.
Horner said paying commission members through executive branch agencies raises questions about the officials’ independence, since the commission is also supposed to investigate the executive branch. Senate Republicans are calling for a “full accounting” of the commission’s spending.
Cuomo created the panel under the anti-corruption Moreland Act in response to more than a dozen convictions of state and New York City officials and some top staffers since 2009. Several more cases are pending from indictments. The Moreland Commission, which held its first in a series of meetings Tuesday in New York City, can investigate and recommend legislation.
Taking aim at conflicts of interest, it has already requested that lawmakers turn over details about how they make money in outside jobs, including turning over law firm client lists.
But Friday, the Assembly’s Democratic majority and the Senate’s Republicans who share majority control issued a joint statement refusing to provide the data. The Legislature said enough data is already provided in annual disclosure forms and questioned the constitutional authority of the commission to investigate the Legislature. That could be the beginning a major rift between the Legislature and Cuomo.
The commission called the Legislature’s position “legally indefensible, ethically repugnant and disrespectful to the public’s right to know.”
But the Legislature contends that a commission created under the Moreland Act can’t investigate the separate and equal legislative branch, and they are hiring lawyers to fight that point – all at taxpayer expense.
The Senate Republican conference confirmed it has hired former U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia, who worked in New York City as a federal prosecutor during President George W. Bush’s administration, at a cost estimated at $50,000.
The Assembly’s Democratic majority said it has hired the national law firm of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman and caps the cost at $50,000.
And the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference said it had hired the firm of Loeb & Loeb of New York City at a cost comparable to that of the other conferences.
Supporters of the commission say any spending by the panel could be offset by money recovered or saved if it finds criminal cases of corruption.