N.Y. Legislature Sues to Void Corruption Probe Subpoenas

New York’s legislature sued to cancel subpoenas issued by an anti-corruption commission formed in July by Governor Andrew Cuomo, saying their only purpose was to harass lawmakers.

The 55-year-old Democratic governor formed the commission after failing to strike a deal with lawmakers on a package of anti-corruption legislation. The state Senate and Assembly have since refused to turn over information about clients and compensation of lawmakers who earn more than $20,000 a year in nongovernment jobs. The subpoenas followed their refusal.

The two houses sued in state Supreme Court in Manhattan on Nov. 22, asking the court to quash the subpoenas on the ground they “serve no legitimate purpose other than to harass and usurp power from the legislature and its members.”

The subpoenas are unlawful because they were “issued to further the governor’s efforts to coerce the passage of certain legislation” and violate the state’s separation-of-powers doctrine, the legislature said in the filing.

“The two statutes the governor purported to rely on to empower the commission to conduct its investigation do not authorize the commission to issue the subpoenas challenged here; and the commission failed to follow a mandatory procedural requirement that was a prerequisite to issuing the subpoenas,” according to the filing.

Commissioners Deputized

Cuomo told reporters on a conference call today that the commissioners were deputized by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, giving them powers outside those typical of a commission, including the right to investigate the legislature.

“When it issues a subpoena, it issues a subpoena as the Moreland Commission and the attorney general,” Cuomo said. “If your position is that the attorney general can’t subpoena the legislature -- that would neuter the attorney general’s office.”

The commission’s leaders, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick and lawyer Milton Williams Jr., said Nov. 22 that they have full legal authority to proceed with the probe.

“It should be noted that a significant number of employers of both Assembly members and senators who were asked for information are cooperating,” the three chairmen said in a statement. “We had hoped everyone would work together but they did not. We are confident we will prevail in court.”

‘Illegal’ Use

State Senator Dean Skelos, the Republican co-majority leader, said in a statement last week that the subpoenas are an attempt to threaten the legislature and are an “improper and illegal” use of executive authority.

Skelos said the state Senate is “committed to fighting public corruption” and is open to ideas for reform, such as an act passed in 2011 in partnership with the governor that establishes a database of individuals and firms that appear before state government entities in a representative capacity.

“Working together, we have accomplished a great deal for the people of this state,” Skelos said. “However, we won’t allow an executive to ignore the Constitution or the important principle of separation of powers.”

The friction between the governor and the legislature is a break in the relationship that helped Cuomo pass the first three consecutive on-time budgets since 1984, a law legalizing same-sex marriage, and a mix of tax increases for the state’s wealthiest residents and cuts for the middle class.

Moreland Act

When Cuomo couldn’t strike a deal on the anti-corruption legislation, he created the 25-member commission, which is allowed under the Moreland Act of 1907. The law gives a New York governor broad investigative authority.

The state Republicans’ campaign committee has also filed a lawsuit seeking to block the subpoenas, along with law firms such as Harris Beach Pllc and Farrell Fritz PC that employ legislators.

According to the legislature’s Nov. 22 suit, the commission sought to “harass, harm and intimidate” lawmakers by sending subpoenas to their employers, including brokerage firms, insurers and construction companies, after they refused to comply with requests for information about their non-legislative activities.

“Not only are these subpoenas abusive in their scope, the subpoenas target the legislators’ private business relationships and finances by seeking information from private parties that New York law does not permit the governor or his commission to obtain from the lawmakers themselves,” the legislature said in a court filing.

The cases are New York State Senate v. Commission to Investigation Public Corruption, 160935/2013, and New York State Senate v. Rice, 160941/2013, New York State Supreme Court, New York County (Manhattan).

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