During his nearly four years as governor of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo has never faced such serious questions as he did Monday before a phalanx of reporters at the University at Buffalo South Campus.
• Did his administration interfere with the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption?
• Has the U.S. attorney in Manhattan questioned him or his staff?
• Why did he disband the panel just as it collected more evidence that could lead to criminal prosecution?
• Will the New York Times report alleging political obstruction of the commission affect his cruise-control re-election effort against Republican Rob Astorino?
But after five days of “business as usual” following last week’s blistering account in the Times – and subsequent ridicule from the likes of Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central and the cast of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC – Cuomo began firing back. And even as he vehemently insisted that no political interference occurred and that his commission was a “phenomenal success,” it all provided even more fodder to political opponents who suddenly sense a wounded incumbent:
• Astorino followed the governor to Buffalo to accuse the Cuomo administration of being “built on lies and fraud.”
• Democratic primary opponent Zephyr Teachout called on Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman – another Moreland Commission member – to conduct his own investigation of possible state charges separate from the probe already underway by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan.
• John P. Cahill, Schneiderman’s Republican opponent, weighed in by linking the attorney general to the Moreland Commission controversy and demanding that he “break his silence.”
It all stemmed from last week’s Times investigative report that outlined accusations from named and unnamed sources familiar with the commission. The article concluded that the Governor’s Office compromised the commission’s work by objecting whenever it focused on groups close to Cuomo or on issues important to him.
The Times reported that the Governor’s Office interfered with the commission as it probed politically allied groups and that the panel never tried to investigate anyone in the Cuomo administration.
It also said that Cuomo aides “repeatedly pressured” the commission, made up to a large degree of top prosecutors from across the state who “thought they had been given a once-in-a-career chance at cleaning up Albany.”
In his first public discussion of the controversy, Cuomo would not answer a question about whether he or anyone on his staff has been contacted by investigators such as Bharara, who has picked up the mantle of the Moreland investigation and issued subpoenas to staff members of State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, with questions about the use of his campaign fund.
During a session with reporters, he said he does not comment on the investigations of others.
But Cuomo was adamant in insisting that the commission succeeded by gaining at least some new ethics reform from the Legislature, explaining that it was formed in the first place because lawmakers had failed to enact the legislation he sought. When asked why he did not allow the panel to continue its investigation as it continued to collect more evidence, the governor said he sought to avoid a permanent bureaucracy and preferred that regular prosecutors take up the matter.
Cuomo stopped short of rebutting the entirety of the Times report but insisted that Monday’s statement by commission Co-chairman William J. Fitzpatrick – the Republican district attorney of Onondaga County – corroborated his contention that the commission accomplished all that it had aimed for by obtaining a host of ethics reforms.
“Now we have facts we can actually deal with,” Cuomo said of the Fitzpatrick letter, occasionally aiming barbs at a Times reporter in attendance and calling the premise of interference “false.” He told the reporter that the newspaper’s description of “interference” was “your characterization.”
The governor said he ended the Moreland Commission, despite it being “an overwhelming success,” because “I don’t believe this state needs another expensive prosecutor’s office.”
“Is it perfect? No,” Cuomo said of the commission. “Is there more to do? Yes. … But it worked.”
The governor’s main point was that “conversation” often occurred between his office and the commission, because it was a panel created by him.
“It was 100 percent independent. Did I talk to people? Of course, I talked to people. It would be unintelligent not to talk to people,” he said. “The best evidence of independence is when someone from the second floor,” where the Governor’s Office is located, “says, ‘Why don’t you do this?’
“And then the chairman says, ‘I disagree; I don’t want to do that,’ ” Cuomo continued. “That’s not a sign of interference. This is demonstrable proof of independence.”
Cuomo said he viewed the article’s description of interference as “conversation and advice.”
“By the executive order that set it up, they were talking to and reporting to the Executive Chamber,” he said. “The question is: Did they act independently? Chairman Fitzpatrick says 100 percent.”
Indeed, the district attorney Monday corroborated Cuomo’s assertions about independence and insisted that he and the other co-chairmen would have resigned in the face of overt interference.
“The bottom line is that nobody interfered with me or my co-chairs,” Fitzpatrick said. “Frankly, for those who do not know me well, the suggestion is absurd.”
He also reiterated the governor’s contention that the commission was designed as “temporary” in nature and that its purpose was to obtain the ethics reforms – however limited they were – from the State Legislature.
“The Moreland commissioners produced a report that should serve as a template for any legislative body serious about ethics reform,” Fitzpatrick said, “a report that serves as a road map for any prosecutorial agency serious about rooting out public corruption.”
None of this seemed to impress Astorino, the Westchester County executive who has been trailing badly in the polls but was suddenly the center of media attention at Republican Headquarters in downtown Buffalo. He noted that Cuomo was swept into office in 2010 by promising to clean up a “cesspool of corruption.”
“He’s actually deep-dived into the pool and is swimming in it,” Astorino said. “Deceit is very much a part of who he is.”
Joined by running mate Christopher J. Moss, the Chemung County sheriff, Astorino warned that the Moreland controversy is “Cuomo’s Watergate” and that his troubles are just beginning. He then called for a special state prosecutor to continue the investigation.
“I would bet my next paycheck there are more indictments to come,” Astorino said. “This is serious stuff. You’re looking at potential obstruction of justice, tampering and maybe many other crimes here.”
Teachout, a Fordham University law professor, also called for more investigation, noting that the attorney general still has the authority to investigate corruption, including whether the Governor’s Office interfered with an ongoing investigation.
“It’s evident of the old-boy political network that so few people have spoken up about a real scandal,” Teachout said, adding that she hopes Schneiderman responds to her call to exercise his “legal authority and obligation to do.”
Cahill followed with his own criticism of the attorney general, whom he’s challenging in the November election.
“It’s clear, by his own words and legal briefs, that Eric Schneiderman had an independent and stand-alone role in the Moreland Commission,” Cahill said. “That legal standing continues today.”