The Moreland Act Commission was established by Governor Andrew Cuomo to root out corruption in state government wherever it might be. Cuomo rode into power as a fighting state attorney general, indicting corrupt politicians and others. He promised that he would do the same thing when he became governor. As governor, Cuomo has the power to use Moreland Act Commissions, heavy duty investigatory bodies that put the fear of God into corrupt politicians and gangsters of every stripe. These bodies have been employed by legendary figures like Thomas Dewey, Mario Cuomo and now Andrew Cuomo.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to understand why Cuomo appointed the commission. He wanted to have some real leverage with the Legislature and other politicians who like things the way they are. We know that is true because from the first moment, the members of the Legislature and their leaders were yelling “foul,” suggesting that the commission was on a fishing expedition. Be that as it may, Cuomo added emphasis to the importance of his commission by appointing several heavy hitting district attorneys to the panel. The thought was that if the panel found anything suspicious or worthy of prosecution, they would turn it over to the relevant district attorneys. Apparently that never happened.
Cuomo asked for a lot of reforms and got what could only be described as minor league concessions from the Legislature. He abruptly told the state’s voters that the reforms he gained were enough to call off the work of the group. This had to be embarrassing to members of the commission who kept assuring us that the whole thing was for real and by the time the commission finished up its work, the results would bear out the money, time and effort that was spent on it.
Of particular note, the governor placed tremendous emphasis on the negative role and influence of money in politics. This, despite the upwards of thirty million dollars in his own campaign coffers that he accumulated from some of the fattest cats in the state. Then Ken Lovett of the New York Daily News printed a story indicating that Cuomo’s people were calling in plays telling the commission who NOT to subpoena. It was possible to do that since the executive staff of the commission had relations with the Cuomo people. Allegedly, some of the people on the hands-off list had contributed to Cuomo’s campaign war chest.
When, to the astonishment of good government groups and The New York Times among others, Cuomo announced that he was killing his investigatory commission before it had time to finish its work, he got a black eye. That injury was made even worse when the fearless Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District, cried foul. Bharara is a solid citizen who sticks to his investigation. He said that he would finish up the work of the commission by himself. He left no doubt in the minds of the good government groups that he meant business and would find out just what was going on. If Bharara subpoenas the work of the commission and finds out that it was just intended to give Cuomo some more clout with the Legislature in their negotiations with him, there could be some serious political consequences.
So now Cuomo has to deal with The New York Times and the United States Attorney and most, if not all, of the good government groups. One can only guess that he never expected this type of fallout. If it turns out he just set up the Moreland Act Commission to give himself more political clout with the Legislature or for the benefit of the court of public opinion, it will hurt the reputation of the man who won office on the back of his promise to clean things up.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 4/14/14