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Liz Benjamin: Governing By Threat

For the second time in two years, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has raised the specter of a Moreland Act commission in hopes of scaring people into doing his bidding.

This shouldn't come as any big surprise, if Cuomo has proved anything since he took office in January 2011, it's that he favors a carrot and stick approach to governing - with a heavy emphasis on the stick.

Cuomo's latest threat came last week following the revelation that JCOPE has so far limited its investigation into the Assemblyman Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal to Lopez's own actions, and won't consider Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's hush-hush settlement using some $100,000 worth of taxpayer dollars with two of Lopez's accusers.

JCOPE has called another special meeting this morning following the governor's comments, and might very well vote to broaden the scope of its probe, which would render Cuomo's threat moot - at least for now.

Cuomo's first invoking of the Moreland Commission actually dates back to before he was even in office. While still a candidate in 2010, he called the notoriously dysfunctional state government a "joke" and warned that if legislators refused to police themselves via tougher ethics requirement, he would establish a commission and do it for them.

After he actually became governor, Cuomo reiterated his threat, using it as a verbal cudgel with which to beat legislators into passing his ethics reform package. (Ironically, the result of that legislation was the much-maligned JCOPE, which is as much on trial in the court of public opinion as Lopez - and perhaps Silver - at the moment).

Cuomo did not seem bothered by the fact that a Moreland Act commission had never before been used to investigate the Legislature as an institution, and scholars suggested doing so would likely be challenged for breaching the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches.

Passed in 1907 and named Sherman Moreland, a one-time Assembly Republican leader, the law gives governors the power to set up a special commission to investigate state agencies. Commission members have subpoena power and can make legislative recommendations to fix any problems they find.

Governors over the years have used the Moreland Act to investigate school funding, harness racing, and the workers compensation system, among other things. The results have been mixed.

In the 1980s, following a series of corruption scandals, Gov. Mario Cuomo set up a Moreland Commission called the Commission on Government Integrity (also sometimes referred to as the Feerick Commission, for its head, John D. Feerick) to investigate the state's campaign finance system.

After three years, commission members deemed the system an "embarrassment" and recommended wide-ranging reforms - from contribution limits to stricter disclosure requirements to closing the so-called LLC loophole.

More than three decades later, those reforms have still not been implemented.

In 1999, then-Gov. George Pataki appointed a Moreland Act commission to investigate the New York City School Construction Authority's failures in building timely and cost-effective projects.

The commission found widespread and systematic abuse in inflating school rolls to beef up the allocation of state dollars - including adding the names of dead children to the roster of students showing up to class every day.

Pataki renewed his call for the NYC Board of Education to be abolished. Control of the city's public school system was given to the mayor in 2002, following a massive lobbying effort by Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

The TU's Jim Odato notes this morning that a Moreland Act commission would enable Cuomo to reprise his role as state attorney general - a job he sometimes appears to sorely miss.

And who could blame him?

Unlike the governor, who has to be pragmatic in order to cut deals with the divided Legislature the AG gets to be the moral crusader, fighting to protect the people of New York - and sometimes the nation - from the powers of darkness.

Cuomo has already moved to usurp some of the powers of his old office by establishing the state Department of Financial Services, an uber-Wall Street watchdog headed by his longtime aide Ben Lawsky.

Lawsky has not been shy about exercising his newfound powers, engaging in an ongoing turf war with Schneiderman that sometimes seems to be more of a focus for the respective enforcement agencies than actually doing their jobs.

It remains to be seen whether Cuomo actually makes good on his latest Moreland Act threat, or if the mere mention of an ultra-powerful commission is enough to get him what he wants.

You've got to wonder though: How many times will this ploy work before someone calls Cuomo out on it?

Liz Benjamin is host of Capital Tonight on Y-N-N. You can follow Capital Tonight all day long at CapitalTonight.com.

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