Blair Horner: The Cuomo Administration Is Stuck In The Ethics Muck

Jul 28, 2014

The big news last week was the blockbuster story by the New York Times that carefully examined Governor Cuomo’s involvement in the activities of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption.

The Moreland Commission was created by Governor Cuomo last year.  The goal of the Commission was to investigate the unending scandals that have plagued Albany.  The Commission was touted as independent of political pressure and Governor Cuomo said at that time that it would be allowed to follow the evidence wherever it led, “Anything they want to look at, they can look at — me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman.”

The Times’s story unveiled a disturbing picture of the Cuomo Administration’s strategy to improperly use the Moreland Commission as a political tool instead of allowing it to act as an independent investigative body as promised by the governor himself.  Instead of allowing the Commission to independently investigate political actions as it saw fit, the Administration directed the Commission to instead focus on the state Legislature, not the governor’s office or his political allies.

The Times reported that the Cuomo Administration stopped inquiries into the activities of a political ally, the Real Estate Board of New York, even when concerns were raised regarding possible “quid-pro-quo” use of campaign contributions to influence legislation.  More broadly, the Times reported that the Administration blocked an inquiry by the Commission’s investigators into the Committee to Save New York – a secretive lobbying organization inspired by the governor – that lobbied on behalf of the Administration’s legislative agenda.

The Times also reported on the administration’s efforts to block Commission inquiries into the State Democratic Committee’s “housekeeping accounts” since that spending may have impacted a firm that the governor has used for campaign activities.

Another troubling aspect is the Times’s revelation that the governor’s top aides directed the affairs of the Commission with an alleged concern for partisan politics in mind.  The investigation into a company, Buying Time LLC’s, expense receipts from a political party committee, for example, was hobbled because they had also received money from the governor’s campaign committee.

The governor issued a 13-page response to The Times article that basically argues that since the Commission is his own creation, “I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me.”

Yet, that is not entirely true.  Members of the Commission were also deputized by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as assistant Attorneys General.  Efforts by the Administration to block investigations by those who should be considered members of the Attorney General office must be prohibited.  The Times’s reporting raises serious questions about the actions of the Cuomo Administration vis-à-vis investigations advanced by the Commission, which were essentially law enforcement officials.

As mentioned earlier, the governor argues that his Administration’s actions did not constitute an effort to obstruct the Commissioners.

It comes down to the Times’s version versus the governor’s.  It is up to the governor to make the public case as to why one of the world’s most prestigious news outlets got it wrong.  The governor should immediately release all relevant documents relating to its interactions with the Commission and hold an in-person news conference to respond to the Times’s reports.  New Yorkers have a right to expect that public officials meet the highest ethical standards.

If he fails to do so, the result will be that the public agrees with the Times.  And if that happens the sad story of the Cuomo Administration’s track record of failed reforms will continue.

In this case, Governor Cuomo’s appointment of a Moreland Commission to fight public corruption was supposed to turn around widespread cynicism about New York government. Instead, Cuomo’s Commission drowned in Albany’s political culture and in bad advice from the Cuomo Administration. What should have been a legacy of fighting public corruption has become yet another symbol of Albany’s dysfunction.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.