Deals on campaign finance, corruption likely in Albany

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appoints the Moreland Commission

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appoints the Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption. (July 2, 2013) (Credit: Darren McGee)

ALBANY -- Even though state legislators feel badly bruised by a recent report from a panel investigating political corruption, they and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo are likely on a path to reach an agreement on campaign-finance laws and other ethics changes in 2014, analysts say.

As long as it doesn't involve using taxpayers' dollars to fund campaigns.

Going into next year, Cuomo wants a splashy tax cut and a fourth consecutive on-time budget, as do Republicans. Downstate Democrats want to help New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio expand prekindergarten. Each faction, including the governor seeking re-election, has something at stake and wants a smooth legislative session before the 2014 statewide campaign season kicks off in earnest, said several analysts, lobbyists and state officials.


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"All of that suggests a compromise on campaign-finance and corruption," said Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz and a longtime observer of State Capitol politics.

Some state officials believe a deal is more likely early in the session rather than later, closer to the April 1 fiscal-year deadline, because no one wants the ethics debate and the hard feelings it has generated to linger. Legislators have complained that Cuomo has been casting them in a bad light by criticizing them for their lack of action on ethics measures after a spate of indictments and convictions of lawmakers earlier this year.

Cuomo hectored legislators again this week after his hand-picked corruption commission issued a preliminary report of what it called the "pay to play" culture in state government.

The Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, informally known as the Moreland Commission, said it found eye-popping examples of alleged wrongdoing involving state grants, campaign contributions and reimbursements to lawmakers. It recommended publicly financing campaigns to limit the influence of big donors, closing loopholes that now allow companies to ignore the current state contribution limits and toughening penalties for bribery.

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, a commission co-chair, said investigations would continue in 2014.

Some analysts have quietly criticized the release of allegations without naming names, saying that the 10 district attorneys on the 25-member commission probably wouldn't have handled their own local cases that way.

Cuomo said some of the findings weren't "breaking news" because of years of news stories and watchdogs' reports about similar transgressions. He defended the commission's focus on the legislative branch rather than his branch, the executive.

"The problem has been evidenced in the legislature," Cuomo said in a refrain he's used over the course of the investigation. "That's where the indictments are. There has not been rampant evidence of corruption among DAs, or in the AG's office, or in the comptroller's office or in the governor's office."

Legislators and aides said there were plenty of "big bruised feelings" since the launch of the commission in July, with some feeling they were being painted as crooks.

But now, with the report published, some sources said the issue appears to be "on a path toward resolution." Some said efforts were being made to lower the thermostat on the conversation and settle the issue.

Cuomo acknowledged that public financing of campaigns was a divisive issue and suggested lawmakers could make deals on other recommendations.

"There's no question we need more laws on bribery, more disclosure and independent enforcement at the [state] Board of Elections," Cuomo said. "I believe there's consensus around those points and those are issues we should move forward on."

He later said he was still "100 percent" behind the idea of publicly financed campaigns. Further, on Monday, commission co-chair William Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County district attorney, signaled public financing could fall by the wayside. "If everything we recommended is put in place except for public financing, I would consider that a tremendous victory," he said on a radio program.

Some say a deal isn't hard to map out.

"If there's a reasonable package of reforms that doesn't include public campaign financing, both houses could go along with an early deal," said John McArdle, the former head of communications for Senate Republicans who now works as a consultant. "All of them realize they have to put this behind them so they can be moving on issues people are more concerned about such as jobs, taxes, health care and education."

Other "reform" ideas floated during the Moreland Commission's deliberations include: toughening bribery laws; making it easier for local prosecutors to pursue political malfeasance; and authorizing a public-campaign-finance "experiment" for a select office, such as state comptroller or some judgeships.

Professor Benjamin said the panel's report isn't likely to result in "transformative" changes. But lawmakers can use it to stiffen penalties and curb the temptation to commit malfeasance.

"You want to make the cost of misbehaving higher," he said.

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