Moreland Commission Report Draws Reaction

Dec 3, 2013

Credit Karen DeWitt

Advocates and lawmakers at the Capitol are reacting to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission report. It offers scathing criticism of what the commission says is a corrupt culture in Albany, and recommends numerous reforms.

The Moreland Act Commissioners offer withering criticism of what they sat is a “pervasive culture” of  illegal  corruption and what they call “legalized bribery” ingrained in a campaign finance system where large donors hold sway over which legislation gets approved, and which bills are suppressed.

The majority of the commissioners recommend enacting New York City style public campaign financing for statewide elections, saying it’s the only way to end the influence of large money donors.

Reform advocates are pleased. Karen Scharff, with Citizen Action, is part of coalition that’s been pushing for  a publicly funded matching small donor  system.

“This is really an historic opportunity, and I hope a turning point,” Scharff said. “The solutions they laid out were quite comprehensive.”

The commission recommends closing loopholes that allow limited liability corporations and party housekeeping accounts to shirk existing limits for campaign contributions. They believe LLC’s should be held to the same $5000 limit currently in place for corporations.

The commissioners also say that the State Board of Elections should be stripped of their enforcement powers, and an independent enforcement agency should be setup instead. They say the Board of Election’s current structure, with two commissioners from each major party has led to a “tacit, bi partisan agreement to do nothing”.

Bill Mahoney, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says it’s a sensible step.

“We’re very pleased that the Moreland Commission has decided to take this completely away from their hands,” Mahoney said. “And create a new entity that is in charge of campaign finance.”

The report says that there should be some new crimes created to patch up holes in the state’s Swiss cheese laws on corruption. They recommend that “failure to report bribery” be a criminal offense, and “undisclosed self dealing” by elected officials who don’t tell the public they may have a financial interest in a particular bill or policy also be considered a crime.  

The commission says it’s continuing several on going investigations that give hints of potential criminal corruption. They include a look at how luxury real estate developers got a tax break secretly buried in a law passed last January, and they refer to e-mails from a trade association that sponsored a fundraiser for Assembly Democrats that specifically said contributions of $10,000 per attendee were necessary to get favorable laws enacted and stop “terrible” ones from happening.

Not all of the Moreland Act commissioners are on board with all of the recommendations.  Seven of the 25 offered a dissenting opinion on public campaign financing, saying that because of the recent US Supreme Court decision Citizens United, spending by outside groups can no longer be regulated. They say the “power of public financing to ‘even the playing field’ is greatly diminished”. And the say a candidate can accept public funds and still benefit from unlimited amounts of money spent by independent groups.

Governor Cuomo, reacting to the report, says he’s well aware of the divisions over public campaign financing

“I wasn’t surprised,” Cuomo said. “Public finance is a policy-slash- political issue.”

Cuomo tried unsuccessfully to convince Republicans in the State Senate to adopt public campaign financing in the 2013 legislative session .

A spokesman for the Senate Republicans points to the dissent among the Moreland Commissioners as one reason for the GOP’s continued opposition to what it’s called taxpayer funded campaigns.  

Cuomo says he is hopeful, though, that lawmakers may agree to some of the other reforms.

“There’s more to do,” Cuomo said.

The Moreland Commission released its report just twenty four hours before Governor Cuomo was scheduled to host a major fund raiser with performer Billy Joel, where tickets run as high as $50,000 a person.