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Kill Fee: The Price of Silencing Moreland

by David Howard King, Apr 10, 2014
 

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo has agreed to end his Moreland Commission to Investigate Corruption (Gotham Gazette)

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Albany, N.Y.-- Governor Andrew Cuomo's Moreland Commission on Public Corruption spent over one million public dollars since its July inception, and, with Moreland's death by budget deal, it is quite unclear what return on investment New York taxpayers will see.

A large portion of the million dollars went to paying for talented investigators, some of whom earned six-figure salaries, and toward purchasing NSA-style data analysis software to detect possible corruption. Moreland was ready to deliver a detailed portrait of Albany's legislative and fundraising processes and to launch full investigations into potential corruption cases, but Cuomo agreed to kill it last week as part of a budget deal.

Moreland had prepared for a long life full of thorough investigation, staffing up with some of Albany's brightest to bolster the team of sitting district attorneys and law enforcement officials who served as commission members. Executive Director Regina Calcacaterra, a former deputy Suffolk County executive and state attorney, was hired at an annual salary of $175,000 to lead the commission full-time. Assistant Attorney General Kelly Donovan, on leave from the AG's office, was hired at an annual rate of $164,000. Investigator Elizabeth Danya Perry earned $140,000 annually; with Assistant Attorney General John Amodeo hired at $138,000; deputy director Tyler Friedman at $125,000; and director of public information Michelle Duffy at $98,000 per year.

Moreland also entered into a $175,000 contract with K2 Intelligence for "reviewing immense amounts of data from disparate sources and of varied levels of organization to uncover conflicts of interest or possible corruption."

While Moreland was alive and well, sweating State legislators spent an additional $345,000 of public money defending themselves from the subpoenas issued by the commission - which was touted as the end-all in exposing corruption and detailing Albany's dysfunctional political culture. But, now good government types are mourning its demise, and no one knows if the money spent and investigations made will yield anything of consequence beyond what Cuomo secured in the budget deal.

"We must root out corruption in politics and government," Cuomo said in July when announcing the panel's formation. Cuomo noted that the legislature had refused his major ethics reform package during a year when several legislators were indicted and two wore wires to capture colleagues breaking the law. "From the beginning," Cuomo continued," 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."

Nine months later, Cuomo has abruptly ended the commission on a promise from the legislature that it would enact a pilot campaign finance program that good government groups have called "a cruel hoax," smaller changes to state law regarding corruption, and the creation of a new position at the Board of Elections (BOE) designed to boost election law enforcement.

While Moreland staff is currently in the process of shutting down operations, some cases are being referred to other agencies for further investigation or prosecution - but how many and what kinds of cases may never be known.

"Cuomo played Lucy to Moreland's Charlie Brown," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Cuomo gets to nominate the new election law counsel at the BOE, but Horner notes that not only must both houses of the legislature confirm the nominee, but Cuomo gave up his leverage when he agreed to end Moreland. The new chief election enforcement counsel will serve one five-year term, as will others who fill the role as it is currently outlined. The legislature also approved codifying two new felonies: "corrupting the government" and "corrupt use of position or authority."

A Moreland member confided to Gotham Gazette that the whole ordeal felt like "putting collars on the most vicious pitbulls you could find, walking them up to the line and then deciding 'nah' at the last second."

Moreland co-chairs William Fitzpatrick and Milton Williams, on the other hand, heralded the agreement after the deal was announced, saying in a statement: "We are pleased that many of our recommendations, including to create an independent enforcement mechanism at the Board of Elections, will be implemented."

But good government advocates say that it isn't just the tax payer's money that was squandered during the life of Moreland, but, more importantly, the opportunity to get a real accounting of how things work in Albany is lost.

"If they had followed through they had the tools and subpoena power to be able to paint the kind of picture of Albany that no reporter, good government group or political scientist ever could," said Bill Mahoney of NYPIRG.

"Albany could have gotten the housekeeping it needed." said Horner. "It could have just been dust bunnies that needed picking up and not a major plumbing job but we will never know now."

The same good government groups reeling over Moreland's demise hailed its first report, issued in December. That report detailed the flaws in the state BOE that leave most violations of campaign finance law unpunished and recommended a public campaign finance system similar to New York City's. Republican state senators have stood steadfast against public financing, saying that it is a waste of taxpayer money. Cuomo said it was their resistance that killed a larger deal on campaign finance in the budget this year.

Advocates wonder why Cuomo relinquished the greatest leverage he had over legislators. The governor repeatedly threatened to invoke a corruption commission during the first two years of his term whenever the legislature refused to act on ethics reforms. Once convened, Moreland became the boogeyman that struck fear in the hearts of legislators, but being at odds with the legislature over the commission may have thrown too big a wrench in Cuomo's overall legislative plans to keep him committed to it.

"Killing moreland makes it more likely the public will view Albany in a worse light than it deserves," said Horner. "A huge historical opportunity has been missed."

Horner notes that Cuomo could empanel another corruption commission again if he so chooses, but would the legislature take it seriously if he did, and has Cuomo lost the momentum he had to actually reform Albany?

"I would hope he does follow through on campaign promises during the rest of [the legislative] session" said Mahoney, "what we won't get is a picture of how the legislature really works - Moreland could have provided that and we've lost that chance."

***
by David King, Albany Editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing


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