New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office blocked a commission it set up to sniff out corruption in Albany from the start, an extensive investigation by The New York Times
reveals, objecting when the panel turned its focus on groups or issues with ties to the governor's office.
Last year, Cuomo established a Moreland Commission
, a panel governors can create under a 1907 law that allows them to establish groups to investigate wrongdoing and recommend legislative improvements.
panel was announced with much fanfare, appointing 25 commissioners and three special advisors from across the state to root out corruption in the state Board of Elections, lobbying law, public ethics, and more "abuses of the public trust."
The commission had just gotten started on its probe when investigators subpoenaed a media firm that had bought millions of dollars in advertising for the state Democratic Party.
The firm, Buying Time, had also counted Cuomo as a client, and when word of the subpoena reached Cuomo senior aide Lawrence Schwartz, he called Moreland Commission co-chair William Fitzpatrick and told him to "pull it back."
The subpoena was withdrawn, and the commission, only in its second month, was already hobbled by the governor's office, reports The Times.
That was just one in a long list of subpoenas that were drawn up and dropped over the course of just under a year.
But Cuomo's office, in a 13-page response to The Times' i
nvestigation, defended its actions with the commission, saying that such a group is appointed by a governor's office and staffed by its designees, and as such, "cannot investigate the executive. It is a pure conflict of interest and would not pass the laugh test.”
Many of the commissioners involved in the group said they saw the Cuomo demands as politically motivated and hindered an investigation the governor had vowed would remain independent, The Times reports.
The commission did target several politicians and offices, including a lawmaker who allegedly used campaign funds to support an out-of-state girlfriend and pay for tanning-salon visits.
Eventually, Cuomo disrupted the commission in April, less than halfway
through what had initially been told would be an 18-month period, and federal prosecutors are investigating the roles Cuomo and his aides took in shutting down the probe.
The panel was also marred by infighting and accusations, reports The Times, and at one point, investigators believed one of Cuomo's appointees was monitoring their communications, and many of the commission's members quit the panel.
Cuomo's office, though, said the commission needed its guidance because the commissioners often "did not understand the budget or legislative process or how state government worked,” and its subpoenas had "no logic or basis." Further, it accused the commission of targeting Cuomo's supporters to put on a show, not for legitimate investigations.
Two attorneys, E. Danya Perry, a former federal prosecutor who was the panel’s chief of investigations and Regina M. Calcaterra, a former securities lawyer who served as the commission’s executive director, often conveyed the governor's office's wishes, but Cuomo was never far from the action, says The Times.
But many of the commission, including some of New York's most seasoned prosecutors, believed they would have more free rein to pursue investigations as an independent group.
"The thing that bothered me the most is we were created with all this fanfare and the governor was going to clean up Albany,” said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters of New York State and a special adviser to the commission. “And it became purely a vehicle for the governor to get legislation. Another notch for his re-election campaign. That was it.”
But as the investigations got too close to Cuomo's office, there were often confrontations between Perry and Calcaterra. And while Perry was a senior prosecutor who handled one of the country's largest immigration-fraud cases, among others, she was a political newcomer. Calcaterra, meanwhile, had spent years in politics and ran as a Democratic state Senate candidate in 2010, being disqualified because of a residency requirement. She'd led another Cuomo Moreland panel to dig into utility companies' responses to Hurricane Sandy.
As a result, one of the first roadblocks Perry and her investigators encountered came when they sought to subpoena the Real Estate Board of New York, whose members have been among Cuomo’s most generous supporters.
And as the investigations went on, Perry eventually told staff to assume that Calcaterra was reading their emails, and Investigators began keeping files on their laptops rather than on a shared drive.
After months of infighting, concerning a wide slate of investigations, Cuomo made his announcement that the commission would be disbanded, in a short statement that came less than 72 hours before the state budget deadline.
The announcement was made as part of a budget deal that included some improvements in state ethics laws, including strengthening statutes on bribery and corruption while enforcing election-law reforms.
And not long after the panel was shut down, Cuomo told government advocates that he had not set up the panel to use as leverage.
"You can’t set up a government investigations committee to extort the Legislature to act,” he said.
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