Disturbing reports are bubbling up that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is interfering with the independent commission he formed to investigate corruption in Albany. If so, (a) he needs to stop, and (b) the commission needs to ignore the pressure and do the critical job for which it was empaneled.
Commission leaders reject claims that the panel is not independent. Cuomo’s office also denies any inappropriate influence, saying its role is within what the law requires, including weekly updates to him by the commission. Yet the reports of interference are persistent and include informed observers such as Karen Scharff, the executive director of Citizen Action of New York.
“I was feeling very optimistic” about the Moreland Commission empaneled by Cuomo, Scharff told the New York Times. “And now, it feels like suddenly things are moving in a different direction.”
Legislators are furiously resisting the commission’s probes, not wanting to divulge sources of outside income. They rely on legal interpretations of the commission’s powers that seem to be lacking in merit, but even if they were correct, nothing prevents legislators from revealing those details voluntarily, simply as a matter of legitimate, crying public interest. They won’t, though, because lawmakers don’t want the public to know where their other incomes originate, and whether they pose conflicts of interest.
At least some of the basis for lawmakers’ resistance is the fact that a Moreland Commission can be empaneled to investigate only the executive branch of government, not the legislative. But this commission is Moreland-plus: Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman deputized the panel’s members, giving them authority to issue subpoenas to the Legislature. The matter seems destined to be litigated – assuming it is allowed to get that far.
But lawmakers are nervous and, to hear the critics tell it, so is Cuomo. According to one report, the commission drafted and approved a subpoena of the Real Estate Board of New York to determine how some powerful developers in New York City won tax breaks from the state. The board’s leaders have been generous donors to Cuomo, whose office, according to the report, got the commission to kill the subpoena.
Some reports say Cuomo is looking for a way out, perhaps by encouraging the Legislature to pass a package of ethics laws or even a constitutional amendment, allowing the governor and lawmakers to declare victory and get on with the messy business of government. That won’t do.
Campaign finance is an obvious place for this commission to investigate and it could hardly do so without looking into the financing of Cuomo’s own campaigns.
There’s a bottom line to this. Albany is a cesspool. Senators, Assembly members and other top leaders are chronically in the news for ethical failings or legal transgressions. Given the Legislature’s opposition to clean living, an independent investigation is the only way to go. If Cuomo is coming down with a case of the jitters, he needs to swallow hard and let this work continue. It can only hurt him if he calls it off – even if he does so with the cover of new laws.
The leaders of the commission need to hang tough and do their jobs. They should issue whatever subpoenas they believe are necessary to give the public a detailed view of Albany’s corruption and to disincentivize its continuation. New laws come after the evidence has been cataloged, cross-referenced and publicized, not before.
Commission members need to hold fast to their charge, as well. That includes Frank A. Sedita III, Erie County’s district attorney, and Makau W. Mutua, dean of the University at Buffalo Law School. They have an opportunity to make a difference in this state, one that comes by only rarely.
Here’s what Cuomo said when he announced formation of the commission in July: “We must root out corruption in politics and government … From the beginning, I said I would not accept a watered-down approach to cleaning up Albany and that the Legislature must either pass this legislative package or I would empanel an investigative commission tasked with accomplishing these same goals to achieve reform. Since the Legislature has failed to act, today I am formally empaneling a Commission to Investigate Public Corruption …”
What was true in July is true in October and will remain true in November. This commission must do its job, wherever it leads.