Once again, New Yorkers have had to hope that federal prosecutors can clean up Albany. When Governor Cuomo unceremoniously pulled the plug on the Moreland Act Commission Investigating Public Corruption as part of a deal with legislative leaders in exchange for weak ethics reforms, even the most optimistic New Yorkers were left depressed.
As part of what is increasingly the M.O. of Albany, a weak ethics package was trotted out to provide the necessary “optics” of reform so that the governor and state lawmakers could run for re-election touting their successes in cleaning up Albany.
And so, the shutdown of the Moreland Commission as part of a weak ethics deal seemed to be the end of the latest efforts to reform Albany.
Until U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara decided to weigh in. Mr. Bharara demanded that all of the Moreland Commission’s files be turned over to him. “If you begin investigations and you begin them with great fanfare,” Mr. Bharara said, “you don’t … unceremoniously take them off the table without causing questions to be asked.”
Several Moreland Commission members said that the files contained some cases that could result in criminal prosecutions. In addition, some of the commission members had complained of interference by the Cuomo Administration.
Asked about Mr. Bharara’s comments, Mr. Cuomo suggested he did not see why there was any concern, describing the commission as a temporary entity and saying its mission was to act as a prod to lawmakers to approve new ethics laws.
The governor argued that the investigations were less important than the policy recommendations. And he said district attorneys and federal prosecutors were already fulfilling the task of investigating corruption.
“I don’t believe we needed yet another bureaucracy for enforcement,” the governor argued. “We needed laws changed, and that’s what Moreland was about.”
Of course, no one ever argued that Moreland was supposed to last forever. But New Yorkers expected that it would be allowed to complete its work and would, as Co-Chair William Fitzpatrick, Onondoga County District Attorney said, “follow the money.” For the governor to now argue that it ended due to “natural causes” is about as accurate as saying that Julius Caesar died of “natural causes.”
So, New Yorkers turn their lonely eyes to Mr. Bharara to do his work and examine Albany using the leads developed by the Moreland Commission. Bravo to that.
But the governor and state lawmakers shouldn’t be left off the hook. What are they going to do to overhaul the state watchdogs who are being funded by taxpayers and who have done little, or nothing, to attack Albany’s ethics problems? What will they to do to open up and strengthen the state’s ethics watchdog, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics? Or the Legislature’s ethics watchdog? Or the State Board of Elections? What will they do to mitigate the influence of big money on the state’s campaign finance system?
The governor and state lawmakers get back to work later this month to begin the second half of the legislative session. Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers should take this time to fix Albany – not to enact fake reforms and then leave the heavy lifting for the feds. No New Yorker should be fooled into thinking the heavy lifting work of reforming the state has been done.
Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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