ALBANY – The day after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission said that it’s investigating an unspecified number of state lawmakers for possible ethical and criminal lapses, the collective backs of Democratic and Republican legislators stood rigid Tuesday as they considered legal and political pushbacks.
Mixed into the legislators’ ire is this question: How will the commission’s report citing “commonplace” ethical lapses at a State Capitol that is home to a “culture of corruption” affect future relations between the governor and the Legislature?
Even those not under investigation wonder how things have gotten to this point where lawmakers are painted with a broad brush of corruption, even though Cuomo acknowledges that only a minority of legislators are targeted.
If the Moreland Commission has the goods on politicians, it should unveil the full case instead of hinting the way the panel did in its report issued Monday night, lawmakers say.
“Critics say it’s a fishing expedition. … Well, let’s show the fish,” said Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, who has not been asked to supply the Moreland panel with any information, unlike dozens of his colleagues with outside jobs. Schimminger is a lawyer but is not engaged in private practice.
Moreland Commission attorneys have issued 200 subpoenas since July, officials reported Monday.
There also was some irony that the Moreland report was released 24 hours before Cuomo’s Tuesday night fundraiser for his 2014 campaign, some aides in the legislature noted. Cuomo, who is pushing for publicly financed political campaigns, already has at least $28 million in his campaign account.
Billy Joel was scheduled to play for the Cuomo crowd of deep-pocket donors, who could be labeled “rock stars” if they gave Cuomo $50,000, according to an invitation to the event.
Cuomo took to the airwaves Monday night, courtesy of a New York radio show co-hosted by former Gov. David A. Paterson, to talk about the “little bit of denial” occurring in the Legislature when it comes to adopting changes to the state’s ethics and campaign finance laws.
Cuomo said lawmakers’ arguments that they personally have done nothing wrong and that two years ago they passed what Cuomo himself billed as a major ethics package works on an individual but not collective basis.
“I’m arguing the collective,” Cuomo said. “I’m saying I understand you did nothing wrong, but as a collective (legislative body), the public has lost confidence. The public has lost trust.”
The Moreland panel repeated many ideas that have floated around Albany for years, including proposals that Cuomo promoted in the 2013 session but that lawmakers ignored.
When lawmakers return for their session during the 2014 re-election year, Cuomo said, he hopes they “realize there’s an institutional responsibility” and pass the reforms that the Moreland panel has proposed.
But lawmakers, who know the ways of the Legislature better than a governor who has never been a part of it, liken Cuomo’s Moreland panel to placing a political gun to their heads.
The commission, whose subpoenas seeking information about some lawmakers’ outside income are being challenged in court by both Democrats and Republicans, was created in July after the governor did not get his way with lawmakers over a set of changes he wanted to the state’s ethics and campaign finance laws.
While Assembly Democrats say they have approved several bills that the Moreland panel sought, they also have blocked some efforts at reforming the Byzantine ways of the state Board of Elections, which has an equal number of Republican and Democratic board members – ensuring deadlocks on many investigations.
In the Senate, Republicans have been steadfast at blocking a taxpayer-financed campaign system that Cuomo wants; GOP lawmakers say their constituents have little interest in seeing taxpayer money go to support candidates who do not share their philosophical or political views.
‘Does a disservice’
But another Buffalo-area lawmaker raised concerns about the way the Moreland probe has been conducted.
“In a general sense, I don’t think name-calling and grandstanding serve any purpose at all,” said state Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, R-Elma.
Gallivan disagreed with using a panel of district attorneys and others to press lawmakers to lean Cuomo’s way.
“The place for all this is in the halls of the Capitol in discussions between the Legislature and governor, and it should be done in full public view,” Gallivan said.
Gallivan, a former Erie County sheriff, expressed concerns on a number of fronts that the Moreland panel released “sensationalized” details about ongoing probes of several unnamed legislators.
“They say they are not releasing names because they don’t want to compromise the integrity and confidentiality of investigations. In my view, they’ve done just that,” Gallivan said. “They got very specific without naming names, … and the persons engaging in the conduct, if it is illegitimate, can now take steps to prevent anyone from uncovering anything additional.”
At the same time, Gallivan believes that all lawmakers could face some level of apprehension because of the way the Moreland Commission released information about the unnamed lawmakers.
Gallivan said Cuomo’s Moreland approach has “probably created some hard feelings” in the Legislature.
“I do think that with words used like ‘culture of corruption in Albany’ or that the Legislature needs to ‘clean house,’ it does a disservice by painting everybody with a broad stroke,” Gallivan said.
Like Schimminger, Gallivan has not been asked to supply any financial information to Moreland investigators.
Unknown now is how it will all play out by June, before the legislative session ends and the governor and lawmakers hit the campaign trail in their 2014 re-election bids. Their common goal – political survival – next November at the hands of voters will overcome any of the ill will existing now, some observers say.
“One would think the Legislature would not want to get into a fight in an election year. That kind of overt conflict isn’t good for anybody, and I would think they would do everything to avoid that,” said Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College.
But Muzzio said that many factors will come into play for true détente to emerge, including the usual horse-trading over fiscal and policy issues that Republicans and Democrats will want in the months ahead.
If relations aren’t improved, the risks are great for both Cuomo and lawmakers.
“That sort of fight would define dysfunction at fairly profound levels. We’re talking institutional prerogatives here, and that’s the whole game,” Muzzio said.
When Cuomo and lawmakers resolve their current feud, the common theory is that the Moreland Commission will go dark and Cuomo can lay down a sword that lawmakers privately believe he got carried away with when he created the investigative panel.
With the release of its preliminary findings Monday, a new question has emerged: How can the Moreland Commission’s work end without resolving evidence that it may have uncovered about illegal “pay-to-play” deals, conflicts of interest and lawmakers possibly double-dipping into campaign accounts and the state bank to pay for travel and other expenses?
Dissent on financing
Officially, legislative leaders were trying to make nice with Cuomo and not take what is already a bitter fight behind the scenes any more visible to the public
Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-manhattan, said the Assembly has backed reform efforts in the past.
Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate co-leader Dean G. Skelos, a Nassau County Republican, said the Moreland ideas will be subject to talks in the 2014 session. He noted that seven Republicans and Democrats, including Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, on the 25-member Moreland panel dissented with the majority’s view that New York needs a taxpayer-financed campaign system.
The dissenters argued that public financing would divert millions of dollars away from schools and other state programs.
Yuesday, the governor himself appeared to be providing some wiggle room on demands from private watchdog groups that he hold firm on a taxpayer-financed campaigns.
After an event in Manhattan, Cuomo called public financing a “political issue” and said that while there was dissent on the Moreland panel over such a system, there was no argument among panel members over the need to toughen bribery laws and add more disclosure about outside income of public officials and political donors.
“I believe there is consensus around those points, and those are the issues we should move forward on,” Cuomo said, leaving out public financing of campaigns as one of those must-do items.