New York Governor Andrew Cuomo created a commission with subpoena power to investigate campaign corruption after two senators and an assemblyman were arrested in the past three months.
The 25 members were deputized by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, which enhances their investigative power to dig through campaign-finance filings and lawmakers’ interactions with state agencies, Cuomo said today at a press briefing in Albany. The commission is authorized under the 1907 Moreland Act, which gives a New York governor broad investigative powers.
The panel will be led by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, a Democrat; Onondaga District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, a Republican; and Milton Williams, a former federal prosecutor who runs the Fund for Modern Courts, a Manhattan-based nonprofit that says it works to remove the influence of money on politics.
“This is a very powerful step that this state government is taking,” Cuomo said. “Our obligation as elected officials is first and foremost to make sure the wrongdoers are punished and, second, to make sure there’s a system in place that’s working to prevent the wrongdoing.”
Cuomo’s father, Governor Mario Cuomo, used the Moreland Act to create a similar commission in 1987 headed by John Feerick, then the dean of the Fordham University School of Law.
Andrew Cuomo, a 55-year-old Democrat, had threatened lawmakers with a Moreland Commission if they didn’t act on anti-corruption legislation he put forward. When the legislative session ended last week, the bills died. They included a public funding system for political campaigns modeled after New York City’s.
The corruption issue has overshadowed some of the governor’s accomplishments, including a post-budget victory tour. On April 2, the day after the start of his third on-time spending plan -- a feat not achieved since 1984 -- Senator Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat, was charged by federal prosecutors of trying to bribe his way onto the New York City Republican mayoral ticket.
“A show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement after Smith’s arrest.
In the weeks since, Senator John Sampson, a Brooklyn Democrat, and Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, a Bronx Democrat, were charged in separate corruption cases.
All three lawmakers have pleaded not guilty.
Meanwhile, a subcontractor for a $415,000 lake house built by Senator Tom Libous, the Republican from Binghamton who heads his party’s election committee, said the Federal Bureau of Investigation spoke with him in March about his work there.
Bonnie Mariano, an FBI spokeswoman in Albany, declined to comment on the questioning. In a May 9 radio interview, Libous said the FBI questioning was “disturbing.”
The circumstances were similar when Cuomo came to Albany in 2011 with a pledge to clean it up.
Alan Hevesi, a Democrat who as comptroller was the sole trustee of the state’s pension fund, pleaded guilty in October 2010 to approving a $250 million pension investment in exchange for a $1 million kickback. Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal, and in March 2011 Senator Carl Kruger, a Democrat, was accused of taking payoffs. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, was accused last year by federal prosecutors of taking a bribe after a previous conviction on corruption charges was thrown out in 2011. He pleaded not guilty.
Dean Skelos, the Long Island Republican who co-leads the Senate, said in a radio interview yesterday that it would be “inappropriate” if Cuomo’s commission becomes a “witch hunt” focused on the legislature. He said he’s ready to respond with an investigation into Cuomo’s re-election campaign, which has raised almost $30 million.
“He’s doing what he thinks is appropriate,” Skelos said. “We’ll see how it plays out.”
The commission will look into all campaign finances, potentially including his own, Cuomo said today.
“This is not about a witch hunt,” Cuomo said. “It’s clear there are cases that need to be policed.”