Four commission members who spoke to Gannett’s Albany Bureau last week said they received no pressure to steer investigations away from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s allies. But they said they were told that Cuomo’s office was receiving regular updates on what they were doing.
And some of the members expressed disappointment that that panel was abruptly shuttered when Cuomo reached a deal for ethics reforms in the state budget, which was approved March 31.
Cuomo has defended pulling the plug on the 17-member panel, saying it was never supposed to be permanent.
“It was a temporary commission. I was not creating a perpetual bureaucracy,” Cuomo said Thursday in Rochester.
Interviews with several Moreland Commission members revealed an engaged group of district attorneys, lawyers and experts who recognized they had a treasure trove of records and evidence that could be used to go after corruption in state government. They said they reviewed potential pay-to-play cases, whether lawmakers’ outside income compromised their public roles and how New York’s porous campaign-finance laws could be skirted.
Makau Mutua, dean of the SUNY Buffalo Law School, mentioned Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals,” that describes corruption in New York politics in the mid-1800s.
“I would say that things are not very different today,” Mutua, a commission member, said. “There’s still quite a bit of corruption.”
Briffault said, “There were tons of ongoing investigations” at the commission. “Where they were going to wind up, no one knows. But there was lots and lots of activity.”
Some members supported Cuomo’s decision to end the panel, saying its work was always going to end up with state or federal prosecutors.
“There are still things that can be done in terms of the investigations,” Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, a commission member, said. “I always felt confident that what we’ve seen thus far would be shared with the appropriate law-enforcement people.”
The commission was set to disband in January, but could have been extended.
“I’m confident that high-quality people gathered the information, are preserving the information and discussing with the appropriate prosecutors what should be referred,” said Broome County District Attorney Gerald Mollen, a panel member.
Still, Mollen expressed some concern about how the panel was disbanded.
“I have to say I disagree with the way that commission was ended so abruptly and as part of a negotiation in the budget process,” Mollen said. “I just don’t think that was wise to end it that way. But I also believe the work of the commission on the investigative side will not be able to be judged until some time well into the future.”
Media reports have also questioned the role of Cuomo’s administration in the commission’s decision making. The New York Times on Wednesday cited an unnamed commission member who accused Cuomo’s staff of guiding what subpoenas were issued.
“I think that’s just ludicrous,” Mutua said. “It’s not the kind of group that you could coerce or interfere with.”
Mutua and others said Cuomo’s office would get updates on their work. In fact, the law required weekly updates to the attorney general’s and governor’s offices.
In September, for example, Cuomo’s public schedules showed he had two private meetings with the commission’s co-chairs. The members said they considered the dialogue as normal because Cuomo appointed the panel.
“I don’t think the commission would allow undo influence by either the governor or the attorney general — although regular conversations were going on,” Mollen said. “And we knew that because we would be briefed at commission meetings.”
“So would some commission members have preferred that there be no discussion of subpoenas or the progress of the commission be discussed with governor’s staff?” Mollen continued. “You could have that viewpoint.
“I myself didn’t have any quarrel with the fact that the commission that was being staffed by the attorney general and the governor was keeping regularly involved. But I always felt that if the commission wanted to go in some place, that no one was going to stop us.”