Remember when the question was whether Bill Clinton inhaled? Well, today there can be little doubt about another matter of respiration: With the announcement by Preet Bharara that he found no criminal wrongdoing in the premature abolition of a state commission investigating public corruption, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has exhaled.
Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, has become the righteous scourge of Albany, investigating and prosecuting public corruption in a way the state capital has never seen. In 2015, he rid the State Legislature of two corrupt leaders, former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
But Bharara began pursuing those crooks only after taking custody of the investigative records of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. Cuomo had empaneled the commission after the Legislature refused to deal adequately with the ethics issues that have dogged it for decades. But he also abruptly abolished it after securing minimal ethics action by legislators.
That raised Bharara’s prosecutorial antenna, and for nearly two years his office has examined the governor’s actions. On Monday, in an unusual move for a prosecutor, he announced that no charges would be filed.
Cuomo, for his part, has always insisted he did nothing wrong. As he observed, it was his commission; it served at his pleasure. Yet, given the corruption that permeates Albany, his defense of his decision to call a halt to the investigation was facile.
He might pretend that the commission had served its purpose by inducing the Legislature to adopt a few flabby ethics changes, but with Bharara’s subsequent convictions of Silver, Skelos and others, it’s apparent that the commission’s work was far from completed.
Still, life rarely moves in straight lines. Does anyone think the Moreland Commission’s work, on its own, would not only have exposed the criminality of Silver and Skelos, but would have produced their convictions? Inadvertently, Cuomo did New Yorkers a favor by pulling the plug on the commission and giving Bharara the room to take his swing.
And Bharara’s not done yet. He has run other elected crooks to ground and is still investigating other possible corruption cases. Bharara was mum on the subpoenas his office issued last summer to agencies and companies involved in Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion, the powerful state investment in this city’s economic turnaround.
The fact is that through this program and other efforts, Cuomo has shown himself to be a friend of Western New York. It’s frankly a relief that Bharara found no criminality regarding shutting down the Moreland Commission, and it will be to Western New York’s advantage if the same holds true of his look into the Buffalo Billion.
But corruption cannot simply be dealt with through prosecutions. The solution to this is not just the hammer, but the anvil: New York needs tougher laws on ethics and on campaign donations. It needs to ban outside income for state officials or, at a minimum, require complete disclosure of all sources of outside income, including the names of the clients of the Legislature’s lawyers – as Silver and Skelos were.
How serious Cuomo is about that will become clearer today as he combines his annual State of the State address with his budget presentation. With Albany’s criminal culture laid bare, New Yorkers need to know that even if no one else is on their side, their governor is.