ALBANY, N.Y. — The commission established by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to investigate public corruption has not wasted any time in sending a message to state lawmakers that it means business.
Among the first people invited to testify before it are two of the most prominent and aggressive federal prosecutors of wrongdoing by elected officials. Those prosecutors, Preet Bharara and Loretta Lynch, will testify before the governor’s Moreland Commission at its initial hearing in New York City this evening.
The hearing, at Pace University, is open to the public and comments can be submitted to the commission online.
Cuomo fulfilled a threat to convene the commission in July after state lawmakers failed to pass legislation to strengthen oversight of the state’s campaign finance laws. A series of federal indictments, a sexual harassment scandal and revelations that some lawmakers were recording their colleagues for the FBI led to public outcry about the murky business in Albany.
Polls showed New Yorkers wanted something done about what appeared to be a new scourge of public corruption.
Initially, the focus of the commission seemed vague if not overly broad. But as the commission began issuing subpoenas this summer, legislators got nervous. The commission sent shockwaves through state government by subpoenaing five real estate firms that are major political players in state government. The groups have made contributions to politicians at just about every level of city and state government — including Cuomo, who had to fight off allegations that he pushed a vote on a tax-break measure after receiving a major donation from one of the groups.
Republicans who control the state Senate hired former federal prosecutor Michael Garcia to represent the legislative conference as it fields requests for information from the commission’s investigators.
Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group said the move is a sign the Republicans are taking the commission seriously.
“I think the fact that they retained such high-priced lawyers indicates that they have major concerns about where this is going,” he said.
But he added that he thinks most legislators most likely aren’t worried about being found out as corrupt. “What I expect from the commission is more of an exposé of the current reality that will give a picture of what legislators get away with — the kind of favors swapped for donations,” Mahoney said.
So what is the Moreland Commission, who is on it, what powers does it have and how could it actually effect change in Albany? Why is anyone afraid of another Albany commission? We have the answers.
Cuomo announced on July 2 the creation of a panel “to probe systemic public corruption and the appearance of such corruption in state government, political campaigns and elections in New York State.” He did so under the Moreland Act, which was passed by the Legislature in 1907 and took its name from a legislator, Sherman Moreland.
Legislators have long insisted that the Moreland Act only gives the governor the ability to investigate the executive branch. However, likely such as the Board of Elections, ethics boards and other agencies that oversee or do business with the Legislature.
The commission has subpoena power and can take testimony under oath.
Giving the commission significantly expanded power, state Attorney General Schneiderman deputized a number of commission members which the Cuomo administration says will given them “broad-based authority to investigate all matters that involve public peace, public safety, and public justice.”
The last time a Moreland Commission was established, the commission burrowed into all manner of alleged corruption — it investigated fundraising issues, the influence of money, developers in Poughkeepsie and even the governor who called the commission: Gov. Mario Cuomo. The uncertainty of where and who this new Moreland Commission is going to look at has legislators spooked. Besides legislators’ ties to developers, it is clear the current commission will be looking at where the money for campaigns originates — and how it is used.
Politically Connected Commissioners
The commission is comprised of three co-chairs: Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, Onondaga District Attorney William Fizpatrick, and attorney Milton Williams. There are 22 commission members and four special advisers including New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly, former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and Joseph D’ Amico, superintendent of the state police.
It’s worth noting that many of the members are Cuomo and Schneiderman allies. A number of those allies are also elected officials who participate in the very campaign finance system they have been tasked with investigating.
Here is a look at some of the commission’s most prominent members:
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice: Rice, ostensibly the “face” of the commission, has served as Nassau County district attorney since 2005, and is currently running for reelection. A prolific fundraiser who had over $2 million in her campaign coffers heading into the her reelection battle, she also received $300,000 in donations from the law firm that employs Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Rice is a staunch Cuomo ally who ran for Attorney General in 2010. She was seen by many as Cuomo’s choice in the race over the winner, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. In a 2009 debate, she was the only Democratic candidate for attorney general to refuse a pledge to seek higher office in the next eight years if elected to the position. Rice’s name has also been linked to aborted Congressional runs.
Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick: A 28-year Republican incumbent, Fitzpatrick was an early supporter of Cuomo’s gubernatorial bid. Fitzpatrick said during a Moreland Commission press conference that he had donated to Cuomo but Board of Elections records don’t show it.
Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson: Johnson has served as Bronx district attorney since 1989. A report by the New York Daily News found that Johnson’s campaign failed to file three required documents during his 2007 campaign. Johnson was running unopposed at the time and there was little fundraising. His record as a prosecutor has come under recent attack and there was talk that county leaders were looking at a plan to get him to step down before his term ends in 2015.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares: Soares successfully ran an outsider’s campaign — backed by the Working Families Party and George Soros — to oust the Albany machine incumbent in 2004. One of the points of his campaign was that Albany politicians had long controlled the Albany County district attorney seat because it was so powerful. The office has jurisdiction over crimes committed in Albany, including by members of the state government who commit white collar crime in the county lines. Soares has been elected twice since then but has done little to curb Albany corruption.
Soares did come to a plea deal with former Comptroller Alan Hevesi and got mixed up in the Troopergate scandal surrounding Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Soares has defended his office’s record pursuing white collar crime in Albany by saying that his office simply doesn’t “have the resources.” But Soares’ office did take part in a highly publicized lawsuit with Florida pharmaceutical companies that were charged with selling steroids. The case involved a number of high-profile athletes. Soares was criticized at the time for spending Albany taxpayer money on an out-of-state investigation.
The Impact on Next Session
The Moreland Commission’s first report is due in December of this year, ahead of the next legislative session that begins in January. Whatever is in it could leave a fog over the Legislature.
Cuomo will likely reference the commission’s early findings in his State of the State speech.
Some advocates are quietly pushing for Cuomo to introduce a series of reforms informed by the Moreland Commission’s findings as part of his budget while other groups want Cuomo to let the package stand on its own merits and not try to ram it through with budget bills. Some groups claim Cuomo has promised not to include any reform package in the budget.
The Daily News reported on Monday that legislators feel persecuted by the commission and may not be in the mood to work with Cuomo come January.
Mahoney said he thinks such a move would be unwise for the Legislature. “The best thing for them is to work to as close to a functional body as they possibly can before the election,” Mahoney said.