ALBANY -- Critics are questioning whether Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice and other county prosecutors should be leading Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's corruption commission because they raise and spend campaign money -- just like state lawmakers.
A government watchdog labeled the panel as structurally "hypocritical," while a top Republican said the appointment of elected officials poses a "huge conflict" for Cuomo's commission.
"If this were going to be a thorough investigation, they should be investigating themselves as well," the Republican Party's state chairman, Ed Cox, said. "How do DAs raise money? That should be part of this report, too."
Cuomo created the corruption panel, informally known as the Moreland Commission, in July after the State Legislature rejected a package of proposals to publicly finance political campaigns and give the governor the power to appoint a special counsel to investigate election-law violations. The 25-member panel notably has 10 county prosecutors, co-chaired by Rice and Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick.
Prosecutors often receive campaign contributions from defense lawyers and civil litigators. Rice has received tens of thousands of dollars from criminal defense attorneys in the past four years, state records show.
Her office said she doesn't solicit from criminal attorneys in Nassau. Still, one former ethics official said the panel shouldn't include anyone who has to raise campaign funds.
"One word comes to mind when I think of the Moreland Commission: hypocritical," said David Grandeau, former head of the state lobbying commission, the predecessor to the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics. "One need only to look at the [prosecutors'] campaign accounts -- how they raise money, how they spend money -- to know they are no different than legislators."
Rice, a Democrat, said the panel was created because of a spate of indictments and convictions of state legislators -- not prosecutors -- this spring. Among the officials was state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens), who was arrested in an alleged scheme to rig the New York mayoral ballot. He has pleaded not guilty.
The Moreland panel has faced questions about its independence from the Cuomo administration, and commission officials acknowledge they report to the governor's office weekly. But Rice called criticism of the panel a "distraction technique."
"First, remember that this crisis of political confidence doesn't have anything to do with prosecutors. It has to do with legislators," Rice said Tuesday in an interview. "Second, this [investigation] isn't solely looking at legislators."
She said the panel's report, scheduled for release on Dec. 1, will take a widespread look at issues involving campaign finance.
The district attorney wouldn't specifically address the issue of prosecutors accepting contributions from attorneys.
Among her biggest contributions from defense attorneys has been $15,000 since 2009 from Benjamin Brafman, a prominent New York City defense attorney, and $26,500 since 2010 from Michael Cornacchia, a Manhattan defense attorney, state records show.
Several attorneys listed as partners at Morvillo and Abramowitz, Manhattan a law firm that specializes in white collar defense and business and securities litigation, donated to Rice. They included Elkan Abramowitz ($4,500) and Catherine Foti ($4,500).
Rice spokesman Eric Phillips said she does not solicit donations from Nassau County defense attorneys. "She's effectively eliminated even the appearance or potential for conflict. We are proud of that," Phillips said in an email.In the past week, commission members including Fitzpatrick and State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have spoken in favor of public financing of campaigns.
Rice agrees. She said the panel's work has "made me confident that public financing of campaigns has to be part of any meaningful campaign-finance reform."