If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo didn’t really mean to root out corruption in Albany, he never should have formed the extraordinary Moreland Commission to investigate it. Once he did form the panel, he should have left it to do its work, and not suddenly disbanded it only nine months into its mission.
It was a political move, as Cuomo freely acknowledges. He formed the commission, he says, in order to pressure lawmakers into adopting ethics reforms. They did, so he aborted the operation. It was a mistake, and possibly worse than that. The commission was New Yorkers’ best opportunity in generations – maybe ever – to expose and root out the systems and traditions that have incubated a well-entrenched culture of corruption.
Fortunately, that work hasn’t ended. Following swiftly on Cuomo’s unexpected and unfortunate decision, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, not only lit into Cuomo, but took over the investigations.
“It was disbanded before its time,” Bharara said. “Nine months may be the proper and natural gestational period for a child, but in our experience it is not the amount of time necessary for a public corruption prosecution to mature.”
Last week, complying with Bharara’s request, the commission handed over its files to the federal prosecutor. The good news – at least when considered through the distorted standards of Albany – is that commission members have said that while the files contained some cases that could result in criminal prosecutions, there was nothing that was likely to result in scandals or the arrests of high-profile officials.
One of the most dismaying reports to come out of the Moreland Commission’s brief lifespan was that the Cuomo administration had interfered with decisions on the direction of the investigations, going so far as to discourage the issuance of subpoenas to groups that supported him, in particularly the Real Estate Board of New York, which won tax breaks from the state. Cuomo’s office has denied that allegation; Bharara may be able to sort that out.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Moreland Commission’s efforts was its charge to find out the sources of outside income for legislators who seemed downright panicked at the prospect of revealing that information to their constituents.
That information is necessary, since the sources of that income have leverage over lawmakers. Yet the commission’s early demise seems to have shut that door to New Yorkers, who have a right to know who may be trying to influence their representatives.
In exchange for this gift, Cuomo won only weak and insufficient changes in ethics laws. With the state budget, Albany adopted a trial run for a public financing system, affecting only the State Comptroller’s Office. It did nothing to rein in New York’s notoriously high contribution limits. It toughened some penalties for bribery, but basically wrote an end to serious efforts to reform one of the nation’s most expensive and most corrupt state governments.
At least Bharara is continuing the investigation, and we presume he will not easily relent, especially given his caustic criticism of Cuomo. If he can find a way to continue to force lawmakers to disclose their outside sources of income, he should do that, as well.