Gotham Gazette

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Investigating the NY Legislature Isn’t Easy. Just Ask Mario Cuomo


ALBANY, N.Y. — It reads like the perfect description of today’s state government: “A series of corruption scandals in New York State, involving officials at all levels of government, produced widespread cynicism and distrust of government and created a perception that unethical, if not illegal, practices were rampant throughout the state.”

But the quote doesn’t describe New York State government in 2013. It was written by the former head of the state Commission on Public Integrity empaneled by Gov. Mario Cuomo in the mid-1980s to investigate what was then described as a culture of corruption in Albany.

Now, nearly 30 years later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said as recently as Friday that, like his father before him, he will call together a similar commission under the powerful Moreland Act to investigate the Legislature — even though the law doesn’t give him the legal leeway to do so directly — after a series of corruption scandals rocked the state and legislators failed to implement ethics and campaign finance reform.

Cuomo’s staff is expected to start meetings with advocates on Monday about how best to proceed with an investigation. Cuomo could bolster the scope and power of any investigation by involving or referring the matter to the attorney general.

However he proceeds, the lessons of his father’s commission should serve as a warning to his son — most of all that investigating the Legislature is no easy task.

That is because the results of Mario Cuomo’s commission, also empaneled under the Moreland Act, were mixed. State legislators refused to fund the enterprise and eventually negotiated an investigation of much reduced scope that left them out of the crosshairs. The public soured on the commission knowing that the Legislature had such a hand in it. To bolster the power of the commission to investigate, Mario Cuomo brought in the attorney general.

The commission operated for 40 months and issued 20 reports. But most observers admit not much actually changed in the way money was tossed around in Albany.

John D. Feerick, who at the time was an assistant attorney general and headed the commission, describes in his reflections published in 1990 that there are many reasons why the commission’s work didn’t translate into actual change. Legislators insisted their recommendations were “too costly,” he wrote; others insisted there was no “public outcry for reform.”

“It also was said that the constituency in New York State for ethics reform was a small one,” Feerick wrote. “Therefore, why expend time and effort in areas which involved so little political return?”

The Moreland Act is a powerful tool but it does not allow Cuomo to investigate the dealings of the Legislature. Instead, a Moreland Commission can investigate branches of the executive that the Legislature interacts with.

“It just so happens people file with the Board of Elections … Some of them happen to be legislators,” Cuomo said Friday on the Capitol Pressroom radio show. “We have state agencies that administer member items they could investigate all of those.”

In particular, a commission looking into the State Board of Election might follow the example of good government groups, which have long said that fines and infractions routinely go unpunished and that candidates fail to file, fail to report who has given them money or just stop reporting the activity of campaign accounts filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

From there, a Moreland Commission would not have the ability to bring charges but instead to catalogue evidence, make referrals and propose reform.

The committee could also dig into legislative member items or “pork” to see if legislators have been benefiting themselves by steering state funds to groups they have connections to. Many legislators have already been caught and indicted for doing so. The Moreland Act does not give the commission the power to bring charges against anyone but it could forward findings to law enforcement agencies.

Cuomo described the way a commission could work in a separate interview on The Capitol Pressroom with Susan Arbetter on Jun 17.

“Go in, review the way we finance campaigns, review what the Board of elections is doing, review the intersection of money and politics and government in the state of New York,” Cuomo said. “Do an investigation, if you find cases send them to the DA and tell us how to make the system better.”

Gerald Benjamin, an expert in state government at the State University of New York in New Paltz, said Cuomo could face retaliation. “Investigating the Legislature invites them to go on a hunting investigation into the executive branch,” he said.. “We have to see how they take this.”

So far, the Legislature hasn’t taken kindly to Cuomo’s proposal. When asked about a Moreland Commission investigation, Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos has brought up the Legislature’s ability to investigate the executive. Skelos and other legislators have painted the move as bullying.

Senate Republicans, who caved to Cuomo on a number of liberal issues early on in his term, have started to buck him as the governor’s approval ratings have slowly declined since he pushed the Legislature to pass The New York Safe Act. The end of session saw the Legislature refuse to address Cuomo’s top priorities in the Women’s Equality Act, campaign finance reform and anti-corruption measures.

“I think how they react depends on the communication that happens behind closed doors. If he tells them he is basically doing this to inoculate himself against all the scandal then I think the reaction could be minimal,” Benjamin said. “Who he appoints, what he sets as goals and the nature and character of the investigation will determine how others react.”

Advocates like Bill Samuels of The New Roosevelt Initiative and Bill Mahoney of the New York Public Interest Research Group said they hope the commission investigates large corporate contributors —the kind of contributors that Cuomo has done very well with.

“We’ve looked in the past and noticed a lot of small violations. Thousands of committees don’t file, it could be a mistake but I’m sure some of them walk away with the money in the bank,” Mahoney said. “A lot of things do seem sketchy and it is very hard to follow the checks and the paperwork and find out what is really going on. It will be interesting to see what a modern commission can find.”

The Moreland Act was passed in 1907 at the urging of Gov. Charles Evans Hughes and gives the governor the ability to "either in person or by one or more persons appointed by him for the purpose, to examine and investigate the management and affairs of any department, board, bureau or commission of the state." A number of Moreland Commissions have been called to investigate a wide range of topics, including: workers compensation, harness racing, welfare and even bingo. The commissions are generally staffed with politicos, investigators and government experts. Cuomo said on Friday that he expects to appoint “public policy and law enforcement types.”

This wouldn’t be the first time Cuomo has used his power under the Moreland Act. Last year, the governor called on the Act to empanel a commission to investigate allegations of ineptitude at the Long Island Power Authority following Hurricane Sandy. The commission was staffed with experts and made recommendations to reduce LIPA’s role as a power provider; the recommendations were turned into legislation and passed into law. Some groups criticized the commission for not looking into Cuomo’s role in LIPA’s dysfunction.

Benjamin noted that Cuomo has had a fairly collegial relationship with the Legislature during his time as governor and the way he has introduced the Moreland Commission seems to indicate that the governor “is trying to avoid confrontation and demonstrate a commitment to reform.”

Samuels is a bit more concerned. “I support a Moreland Commission,” Samuels said. “I think he should do it rather than threaten it, but I question whether Cuomo has the ability or desire to change the culture in Albany.”

However, Samuels believes that a Moreland Commission still is the best avenue to pursue. “They can only gather information so I’m not really sure what can come out of it. We have to sit back and hope they come up with something.”

Regardless of the mixed results from the Feerick Commission, the current Cuomo who resides in the governor’s mansion has already played a hand in the battle for ethics reform in Albany by herding legislators toward ethics reform early in his term. The resulting legislation forces legislators to reveal outside income; it also created the Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

JCOPE has already suffered a number of embarrassments. JCOPE’s failure to launch an investigation into the Assembly’s handling of the Vito Lopez sexual harassment settlement has raised deep concerns among member of the good government community. The commission is made up of representatives appointed by legislators and other statewide officials. The votes of only a few members can block an investigation. “Self-policing is not productive,” Cuomo said upon announcing his failure to reach a deal with legislators on anti-corruption measures last week.

The fact that Cuomo was unable to secure support from legislators on anti-corruption laws and campaign finance reform may be a sign that he has lost credibility with them — and that despite the numerous indictments they plan on pushing back against anything they think will reduce their power and influence.

In his reflections, Feerick writes that his commission was attacked for not working hard enough to bring about change. “I found these criticisms painful because of the enormous efforts by the Commissioners and staff over a period of 40 months to achieve, in the face of intense resistance, a more ethical government in New York State.”

When the commission issued its final reports, it found that certain legislators raised a great deal of money from corporations and that those legislators acted in the interests of those corporations. The commission made a slew of recommendations to update New York’s archaic campaign finance system and ethics laws but for the most part they were ignored.

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