ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's 2013 executive order creating the Moreland Commission on public corruption names Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman four times, depended upon the attorney general's subpoena power to investigate where Cuomo couldn't, and gave Schneiderman nine of the 25 appointees on the commission.
While Cuomo this week defended himself against accusations in a recent New York Times article that he interfered with the commission to protect political allies, Schneiderman has remained silent on the controversy. But it is becoming the top issue in the attorney general election campaign.
"He apparently was a bystander," said Republican challenger John Cahill, a former top aide to Gov. George Pataki and an attorney from Yonkers. "It was his responsibility to oversee what was going on with his deputies . . . and if there was interference, to be the stand-up attorney general and absolutely have no tolerance of it."
Cahill said previous media reports that subpoenas had been blocked for political purposes should have been enough for Schneiderman to intervene on behalf of the commissioners he deputized as assistant attorney generals. Cuomo and several commissioners have denied any interference, calling the input necessary advice, and said neither Cuomo nor his political allies got a pass.
Aides for Schneiderman said it would be wrong for him to talk about Moreland because U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is probing the cases and actions of the commission.
"Our office cannot comment on ongoing or potential investigations arising out of the Moreland Commission, whether they are being pursued by our office or other prosecutors," said Damien LaVera, spokesman for the Manhattan Democrat.
Politically, the issue could be pivotal. A poll this month showed 56 percent of New York voters didn't know Schneiderman or didn't know enough about him to have an opinion of him. Seventy-four percent didn't know Cahill, but he has some uncommon assets for a challenger, including Pataki's backing and access to the Republican Party's best donors seeking perhaps their best chance to crack the Democrats' control of all statewide offices.
Schneiderman's campaign bristled at Cahill's claim that Schneiderman was soft on corruption. "No attorney general in New York state history has been as aggressive in cracking down on public corruption as Attorney General Schneiderman," said campaign spokesman Peter Ajemian.
He noted Schneiderman has prosecuted 40 politicians, government officials and nonprofit officials "who abused the public trust -- including legislators from his own party."
Court records showed Schneiderman played an active role in the Moreland Commission in 2013, when he represented it against efforts by legislative leaders and the law firms they worked for to quash subpoenas targeting them for potential conflicts of interest.
In media interviews at the time, Schneiderman said the effort to quash the subpoenas was "essentially . . . a challenge to my power," referring to the commissioners as "my deputies."
Vincent Bonventre, an Albany Law School professor, said the lack of verified facts in the conflict and the broad discretion attorneys general have in how to act make judgments about Schneiderman's role difficult.
"It's all very murky and a lot of it is because he's not talking and some of the people who are talking don't seem to be making it any clearer," he said.Bonventre noted some commissioners, including co-chairman William Fitzpatrick, were quoted by the Times in private emails complaining about interference by Cuomo, yet publicly say there was none.
"But if there was something that pretty clearly ought to be investigated because it was suspicious, he should have investigated it," Bonventre said of Schneiderman. "What isn't clear is exactly what was going on. Fitzpatrick says everything was wonderful. But we're pretty sure everything wasn't wonderful."