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Second Hearing Tuesday For Moreland Corruption Commission

Karen DeWitt

The second hearing by New York Governor Cuomo’s Moreland Act Commission on corruption in the legislature will be held Tuesday evening in Albany.  Government reform groups are scheduled to testify, and some say the commission should also be looking at some of the campaign contributions to the Governor himself.

Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, is among those scheduled to testify. Her group was the first to raise questions about contributions by top real estate companies to the legislature and to Governor Cuomo. Several developers gave money to state lawmakers at around the time that they quietly won a tax break for some luxury apartment projects in New York City. 

The Moreland Act Commission has already issued subpoenas to the real estate developers, and Lerner says she hopes the investigation is vigorous.

“We think that it’s a leading example of what is worst about our campaign finance system,” Lerner said. “And we think it is a perfect  example of what needs to be changed.”

Lerner says the questionable connections between the campaign donations and lawmakers are just the tip of the iceberg.

“This is the clearest and most glaring example of a pay to play culture in Albany that is inherently corrupting,” Lerner said.

Bill Mahoney, with the New York Public Interest Research Group will also be testifying. Mahoney has also already influenced some changes in the way state government is responding to corruption.  Back in the spring, Mahoney crunched numbers from the state Board of Elections and found that there were over 100,000  potential campaign finance law violations by candidates over a 2 year period. He found the board had seldom imposed fines, and when they did, infrequently collected the money.

This week, the Board of Elections, as first reported in the Albany Times Union, decided to freeze the bank accounts of candidates who have not paid their outstanding fines.

A spokesman for the Board of Elections says it will first focus on candidates who owe the most money and then move on to others who owe smaller fees.    Mahoney says it’s a start.

“It’s a very encouraging sign, “Mahoney said. “The Board of Elections has historically done almost nothing to enforce the existing law.”

The announcement comes as the Moreland Commission has asked the board for numerous records, as part of probe. Mahoney, with NYPIRG, says there’s a connection. 

“I think they are acting somewhat defensively and trying to rebut some of this criticism before it steps up with the coming hearings,” Mahoney said.

Mahoney says the very structure of the Board of Elections is problematic, and he hopes to address that and other issues in his testimony at the upcoming hearing.

“They’re a partisan entity, with two Democrats and two Republicans and to take any action they need at least three votes,” said Mahoney who says the arrangement results in “perpetual gridlock”.

Mahoney says there’s also problems with donors who give above the legal limit, and candidates who simply never file, preferring the slim risk being caught and paying a small fine, if the Board collects it at all.

He and other representatives of government reform groups will give their testimony to the commission Tuesday evening at the second of several planned hearings.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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