Alleged political interference by Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration into the Moreland Commission that the governor created to investigate public corruption is now emerging as a major issue in a suddenly intensified statewide campaign.
Republican opponent Rob Astorino demanded late Wednesday that Cuomo answer questions about his administration’s role following a New York Times article outlining several accusations of interference with the Moreland Commission. He wants to know who in the governor’s administration may have been subpoenaed in connection with a federal probe of his handling of the commission, what role he may have played in steering the panel away from investigating his administration, why top officials named in the article are still in office, and why he should not be charged with obstruction of justice.
He pointed to a front-page report Wednesday in the Times indicating that Lawrence S. 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.”
In a conference call with reporters statewide Wednesday, Astorino jumped on revelations that threaten to turn a sleepy campaign for governor into an effort dominated by the touchy subject of corruption – which Cuomo himself said he was targeting by creating the Moreland Commission.
“In my mind, this is the most corrupt governor in history,” Astorino said. “His lead in the polls is dirty … and based on a big lie.
“If he broke the law – and it appears he may have – he shouldn’t remain in office. It’s incumbent on federal prosecutors to expedite this.”
The Westchester County executive’s comments followed similar reaction earlier in the day from Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham Law School professor challenging Cuomo in the Democratic primary.
“When a private indiscretion became public, Gov. Eliot Spitzer quickly resigned from office,” she said. “The Cuomo administration’s indiscretions – public acts that violate the public trust – are far worse. If Andrew Cuomo directed or even knew that his top aide was obstructing the Moreland Commission, he should immediately resign.”
Good-government groups weighed in, too. The Citizens Union issued a statement echoing Astorino’s call for the governor to address voters’ concerns by having a news conference to answer questions from reporters.
“His staff’s interference with the Moreland Commission’s work and his own decision to shut it down fuels the public’s cynicism of government, and of those who pledge to reform and then don’t,” the group said.
Cuomo’s campaign staff did not respond to any of Astorino’s questions from his Wednesday conference call but issued a countercharge by referring to an article in the Journal News of Westchester County reporting that Astorino cleared an outside job as a radio consultant with his own county attorney rather than the ethics board.
“It takes a lot of nerve for Westchester’s king of cronyism to launch attacks on ethics,” said campaign spokesman Peter E. Kauffmann. “Rob Astorino should come clean on his outside income and the raises he’s given to political allies.”
The governor’s press office, meanwhile, followed a business-as-usual routine – issuing no fewer than seven releases throughout the day, hailing everything from state influence in retaining Stephen Colbert’s television show for New York City to announcing an effort to strengthen data collection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers.
Cuomo’s office told the Times that because the Moreland Commission was created by and reported to the governor, it could not be accused of interfering.
“A commission appointed by and staffed by the executive cannot investigate the executive,” Cuomo’s office told the Times. “It is a pure conflict of interest and would not pass the laugh test.”
But Astorino challenged that contention, too, pointing out that the panel also included Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who deputized the panel as assistant attorneys general.
“This was clearly enjoined by the Attorney General’s Office and its 25 members were deputized with subpoena power,” he said. “This was not some advisory board that reported to the governor.
Aside from the Times article Wednesday, similar complaints surfaced in Western New York during the existence of the commission, which held hearings only in New York and Albany and never in Buffalo. Erie County Legislature Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant and former Legislator Timothy R. Hogues, both Buffalo Democrats, complained to the Moreland Commission that a political committee with ties to political operative G. Steven Pigeon – a close Cuomo ally – spent significant money to promote candidates for sheriff and County Legislature and coordinated that spending with the candidates – a violation of state election law.
Grant later complained that she never even received a reply to her complaint from the commission.
The Buffalo News in October also reported several instances of potential conflict for Cuomo should the panel accept Grant’s demand for a probe.
Allegations aimed at Cuomo and his commission have now been probed for months by Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan who has subpoenaed much of the Moreland Commission’s files and at least one member of its executive staff. It picked up the panel’s investigations shortly after Cuomo ordered that it be dismantled after he obtained several reforms from the State Legislature at the end of its 2014 session in June.