Is the Moreland Commission another toothless tiger?
The Moreland Act Commission was established by Governor Andrew Cuomo to root out corruption in New York state government. It falls in with other attempts by the governor, he says, to try to get the Albany political scene into some semblance of a responsive, democratic government. Everyone knows that when someone gives a legislator or a governor a load of money, they want something back for it. The governmental process is clearly out of control. But was the governor actually serious in establishing the commission, or was he just putting on an anti-corruption play of some kind?
When the commissioners questioned Cuomo about the money in his own campaign coffers — over $29 million — he told them to follow the money no matter where it led. The commission was to be independent and there was to be no political interference. It is led by a Republican, William Fitzpatrick; a Democrat, Kathleen Rice; and a third chair, Milton L. Williams Jr., appointed by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. It has an executive director who, interestingly enough, has a previous working relationship with Cuomo.
The commission has the right to subpoena records and testimony from anyone in and around state government. Among other things, they sent out a letter asking legislators to tell exactly what they were doing for the “outside” money that people were paying them. They also prepared subpoenas for lobbying groups and others that had given large amounts of money to the governor and legislators. Unfortunately, despite the protestations of the governor that the Moreland Act Commission was to be free to follow the money and the stench of corruption, Ken Lovett, now recognized by many as the top political reporter in Albany, broke a major story that the Governor’s Office had started to send in plays to the commission. Examples: the real estate industry group that had supplied money to the governor’s campaign war chest was not to be subpoenaed. The legislators who were being targeted were not to be subpoenaed. Sources indicate that the governor wanted to empanel the commission in order to scare the hell out of the Legislature, but not to the point that there would be real war.
I’ve been hearing a lot from the so-called “goo-goo” (good government) groups. The message I have been getting is that the governor has been interfering in the work of the Moreland Act Commission and that he never really meant it to work in the first place. One of these top sources told me that this fits in nicely with other Cuomo programs, where the governor got credit for doing the right thing, but in the end, his programs actually turned out to be less than effective. Before he became governor, he said that he would veto a bill allowing the legislators to gerrymander their own districts, but once he was elected, he didn’t do it. And then he appointed the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) that has, by almost everyone’s estimation, turned out to be a toothless tiger.
The suspicion is that Cuomo doesn’t really want to bring government to heel but would like to appear to want that, and maybe, to control the way things work. Frankly, I was surprised when he appointed the Moreland Act Commission. That would have been a big risk. He put some top commissioners to work. Some of the most ethical people in the state are on the commission. They are not going to have anything to do with a phony operation. Cuomo has got to be worrying that this will be a runaway commission and they will really follow the money. At that point anything could happen.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 10-15-13