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Anti-Corruption Panel, Moreland Commission Ends

The recently enacted state budget also marks the end of a commission that was investigating corruption in the legislature. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed to dismantle the Moreland Act panel as part of a deal on ethics reform.

At the end of the legislative session last year, Governor Cuomo was annoyed that lawmakers had rejected his ethics reform package, even after several lawmakers had been indicted, jailed, or found to be wearing wires in ongoing FBI probes.  Cuomo announced the formation of a commission, under powers granted in the state’s Moreland Act, and instructed them to probe numerous allegations of corruption in the Senate and the Assembly.

“Your mission is to put a system in place that says a), we’re going to punish the wrong doers,” Cuomo said on July 2, 2013. “And to the extent that people have violated the public trust, they will be punished.”

The panel, made up mainly of District Attorneys from all over the state, held several hearings, including an intense grilling of state Board of Elections officials for failure to enforce the state’s already weak campaign finance rules. At the hearing in October, Commission Co-Chair and Nassau County DA Kathleen Rice, saying “New York’s campaign finance system is deeply broken”, offered a hint of the panel’s ongoing probes.

“90% of what we’ve accomplished we can’t yet share with the public,” Rice said on October 28, 2013.     

But, nearly a year later, no one’s been punished, and the commission has been defunded and dismantled. The inquiries mentioned by Rice are, presumably, in limbo.

Governor Cuomo agreed to end the Moreland Commission after state lawmakers in the budget adopted to stiffer penalties for bribery and general corruption, and some greater disclosure of campaign donations. They also agreed to set up an independent enforcement agent at the state Board of Elections to police campaign violations.

The governor had also wanted a voluntary public campaign financing system for statewide races, including the governor and all 263 seats in the legislature, but the deal limits the program to the state Comptroller’s race.

Government watchdog groups have widely condemned the deal, saying Cuomo gave away a powerful tool to combat corruption, for too little in exchange.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group says Cuomo is “sticking a knife” into what was, essentially, his creation.

“We think it’s a big mistake, their work is not done,” Horner said. “The public deserves to get their moneys’ worth.”

Cuomo, speaking at a budget signing ceremony,  disagrees. He says the Moreland Commission achieved what he intended, passage of what he calls the Public Trust Act.

“I said consistently that if they passed that law, we would end Moreland,” Cuomo said. “And we have.”

And the governor says a more expansive public campaign finance system did not happen because the votes weren’t there in the Senate, and he could not change some Senators minds.

State legislators were suspicious of the Moreland Commission and were eager to get rid of it. They believed Governor Cuomo controlled the commission, and would have them focus only on alleged corruption by the legislature, and turn a blind eye to any allegations of wrong doing from the executive branch.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver voiced his concerns shortly before budget talks began.

“The commission, we believe, has exceeded its mandate and has been engaged in a fishing expedition to intimidate legislators,” Silver said in February.

The commissioners, all appointed by Governor Cuomo, gracefully stepped down from their posts, without compliant.  DA Rice had already left to run for Congress.  There’s no word on whether any ongoing investigations will be referred to local district attorneys, or even if  anything illegal was discovered .

The commission did issue one report, in December. It said it had found a “dysfunctional” political and electoral system in New York,  and that the best way to change that would be to enact public campaign financing without delay .

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.