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Public corruption targeted as Cuomo unveils statewide panel in visit here

A top-level state commission will investigate public corruption in New York State, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo begins a statewide anti-corruption campaign today at the University at Buffalo Law School.

Cuomo will continue his latest in a string of Buffalo visits, according to sources familiar with his schedule, by announcing a bipartisan panel of top law enforcement and legal experts to probe “systemic public corruption and the appearance of such corruption in state government, political campaigns and elections in New York State.”

Cuomo’s appointment of the commission follows his unsuccessful effort to obtain passage of a series of anti-corruption bills in the just-ended session of the State Legislature. He had submitted the bills to address the influence of money in elections, strengthen prosecutors’ ability to fight corruption, increase penalties against violators and give voters more access to the ballot box. No action was taken by the Legislature.

Now, as an alternative that he threatened to use during debate over those bills, the governor will empanel a “Moreland Commission” that various governors dating from Thomas E. Dewey have used. The panel will have broad investigative powers under the state’s Moreland Act.

Its members – which include Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III and UB Law School Dean Makau W. Mutua – will be designated as assistant attorneys general by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman with the power to investigate all matters that “involve public peace, public safety and public justice.”

Under Cuomo’s executive order, the commission can also subpoena and examine witnesses under oath, as well as subpoena necessary records. It follows several recent charges of corruption and misconduct by public officials that the governor says demonstrate the inadequacy of current laws and the need for reform.

“Since the Legislature has failed to act, today I am formally empaneling a Commission to Investigate Public Corruption … that will convene the best minds in law enforcement and public policy from across New York to address weaknesses in the state’s public corruption, election and campaign finance laws, generate transparency and accountability, and restore the public trust,” he said.

Cuomo will launch the initiative with a powerful ally in Schneiderman, who said he will devote the powers of his office to the effort.

“This commission will be able to conduct a top-to-bottom investigation of New York State’s government,” the attorney general said, “and move us forward to repair our broken political process, strengthen our representative democracy and give New Yorkers the quality of leadership they deserve.”

Three prominent law enforcement figures will head the panel: Onondaga County District Attorney William J. Fitzpatrick, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen M. Rice and Milton L. Williams Jr., a former state and federal prosecutor.

“It appears the governor is pretty darn serious about this,” Sedita said, noting the long list of fellow prosecutors who join him on the panel.

“I look forward to reviewing all the laws and making recommendations,” he added.

The Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, as it formally known, will have the responsibility for reviewing the adequacy of existing state laws, regulations and procedures involving unlawful and unethical conduct by public officials, as well as the electoral process and campaign finance laws.

It will also examine the effectiveness of existing laws and recommend changes, and review recent instances of reported misconduct by officials.

A final report is expected by Dec. 1.