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Commentary & Opinion

Liz Benjamin: Crying Wolf?

Liz Benjamin
YNN, Capital Tonight

The following is a direct quote from Gov. Andrew Cuomo:

"New Yorkers deserve a clean and transparent government comprised of officials who work for the people, not for the special interests and certainly not for their own corrupt self-interests."

"Today, I reaffirm my commitment to clean up Albany...or I will form a Moreland Commission by the end of this legislative session.”

Sound familiar?

Just last week, was rattling his Moreland Commission Act saber following a string of high-profile corruption arrests of state legislators, threatening their colleagues that he'll take matters into his own hands if they don't pass a reform package.

Here's what Cuomo said to reporters after his former chief of staff, Steve Cohen, told me on CapTon that a Moreland Commission, which has far-reaching subpoena powers, wasn't an empty threat, but more of a warning:

"I’m not willing to let the session conclude without a response to what has come up, and I want people to be reassured. I hope they pass a reform package - if they don’t, there are other options that I can consider, one of them is a Moreland Commission."

As it turns out, however, Cuomo made that first statement all the way back in March of 2011 - three months after he took office - in the wake of US Attorney PreetBharara's announcement of federal corruption charges against then-state Sen. Carl Kruger.

The ellipses replaced a short phrase that would have given astute readers a clue as to exactly when Cuomo uttered this quote.

Not only did the governor reaffirm his commitment to clean up Albany, but he also threatened state lawmakers that if they did not pass ethics reform - a pledge he made during the 2010 campaign - then he would exercise his executive powers against them.

The 2011-12 budget event included a $270,000 appropriation for a Moreland Act. But in the end, Cuomo did not have to make good on his threat.

Legislators eventually capitulated and passed an ethics reform bill that led to the creation of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics - a body that has turned out to be something of a joke around Albany, and has been criticized by some of being purposely cumbersome so as to make investigating state lawmakers very difficult.

Recently, both the executive director and chair of JCOPE have stepped down, and the commission is involved in a high-profile tug-of-war with Staten Island DA Dan Donovan over the release of a report on Assemblyman Vito Lopez's sexual harassment scandal.

At the time of its creation, however, Cuomo hailed the nascent JCOPE and its accompanying reforms as a significant and historic step toward cleaning up Albany.

Now, the governor finds himself in familiar and choppy waters yet again, forced to use his Moreland Act Commission power as a cudgel against a Legislature reluctant to police itself.

Cuomo has established one Moreland Act Commission since he took office, and it is conducting on ongoing investigation into the utility industry's response to Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, and Tropical Storm Lee.

But so far, Cuomo has declined to unleash a Moreland Commission's power on the Legislature - and there are good reasons behind his reluctance to put his tough talk into action.

Over the years, governors have employed this power to investigate everything from the construction of New York City schools to the workers compensation system.

In the late 1980s, Cuomo's father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, set up a Moreland Commission to investigate the state's byzantine campaign finance system.

Known around Albany as the "Feerick Commission," in honor of its chairman, John D. Feerick, this commission conducted a thorough probe - even examining Mario Cuomo's own campaign fundraising and spending, much to his chagrin.

The commission eventually deemed the system an "embarrassment," and recommended a slew of reforms, which received a tepid response at the Capitol.

Three decades later, we're still debating campaign finance reform, which may or may not be something the current Gov. Cuomo wants to see the Legislature pass in response to this latest wave of public corruption.

A Moreland Act Commission can be a dangerous thing - especially if it's truly independent.

Also, experts have debated whether a commission really has the power to investigate the Legislature, or if attempting to do so would violate the constitutional separation of powers at the Capitol and touch off a protracted legal battle between two branches of state government.

Certainly, unleashing a Moreland Commission on the Legislature would be tantamount to a declaration of war by the governor as he heads into his first re-election campaign with drooping poll numbers and a mounting list of headaches.

But given the so-called "scandal fatigue" mounting at the state Capitol these days - with the Senate avoiding coming to work altogether this week and growing concern that very little will actually get done in the remainder of the session - a Moreland Commission would certainly be one way for Cuomo to shake things up.

And there's only so many times he can threaten to do so without lawmakers - not to mention average New Yorkers - starting to wonder if they should bother believing him.

Liz Benjamin is host of Capital Tonight on YNN. You can follow Capital Tonight all day long at capitaltonight.com.

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

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