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Corruption Commmission Probes Intensify

Karen DeWitt

An anti-corruption commission appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has deepened its investigations in recent days. The probes come as Cuomo came increasingly under fire, accused of trying to control the panel and even suppress some subpoenas.

A corruption commission appointed by Governor Cuomo has voted to send subpoenas to some key members of the legislature to find out more about their relationships with private law clients.

The Moreland Commission had already written letters to state Senators and Assemblymembers who make more than $20,000 a year from outside legal clients, asking the information, but were refused.

In the same private meeting where they voted to intensify the probe of the legislature, the Moreland Commission also voted to subpoena the party housekeeping accounts of the Democrats, Republicans and Independence Parties.  The housekeeping accounts are regarded by critics as loopholes that can be used to override direct donation limits to candidates.

Governor reform groups are pleased.

“I think it’s important in the process of moving toward reform that the commission have the trust of the public, and be seen as taking on everybody equally,” said Karen Scharff, with Citizen Action .

The new subpoenas come after Cuomo was under fire in newspaper columns and editorials for appearing to waver on a commitment to fully probe corruption. The New York Daily News reported that Cuomo had encouraged  the commission to suppress some subpoenas, including ones to the state’s Democratic Party, which the governor leads, as well as subpoenas to real estate companies that had contributed to the governor’s campaign, right around the time he signed a bill giving luxury developers a tax break.

The pressure led to an awkward exchange between the governor and reporters. Cuomo was asked whether he or any member of his staff instructed the commission to hold back on some investigations.

“The Moreland Commission is staffed by people from the governor’s office and the AG’s office. We staff the commission. The co-chairs vote on what subpoenas to do and it requires a unanimous vote of the co-chairs,” Cuomo answered.

The reporter, Glenn Blain of the Daily News, followed up asking again, “and you or any members of your staff didn’t play any role in helping them determine where to go with subpoenas or not?”

Cuomo answered, speaking more slowly, “The governor’s staff staffs the commission. It’s staffed by people from the attorney general’s office. So they staff the commission.”

“No, I understand that," Blain persisted. “But in terms of who gets a subpoena – did you play any role in that?”

Cuomo answered, “The co-chairs make that determination. The co-chairs make that determination,” as a staff member hurried him away.

Several days later, Cuomo scheduled meetings with the editorial boards of the Daily News and the New York Times, and the commission was voting to go ahead with the subpoenas.

On a parallel track, the governor confirmed that he’s talking with legislative leaders about a reform package that could change the campaign finance laws. It would perhaps end the need for a full blown investigation.

“They’re talking, as they should be,” said Cuomo, who says he does not expect a “quick resolution” for reform legislation.

Cuomo did not confirm reports that the talks include a possible constitutional amendment to enact public campaign financing. That process would ensure that no reforms happen until several elections cycles in the future

The Moreland Commission is scheduled to deliver a preliminary report in December.  The key next step will be what kind of conclusions the commissioners draw from the information they’ve gained through the subpoenas.

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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