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State elections board issues requirements for independent investigator

ALBANY – The state Board of Elections on Wednesday imposed more requirements for an enforcement counsel to obtain subpoenas in probes of campaigns and candidates -- a move good-government groups and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said weakens the investigative position.

The public vote came amid years of private tension between the Board of Elections and elections Enforcement Counsel Risa Sugarman.

The regulation adopted Wednesday will require Sugarman to provide more information to the Board of Elections about investigations and justifications for subpoenas, as well as a chance for subjects of subpoenas to try to quash them. She has investigated illegal campaign contributions and spending by campaigns in both major parties.

“These procedures will slow or terminate important investigations of alleged violations of election law,” said John Kaehny, executive director of the good-government group Reinvent Albany. “The Board should not seek to undercut the independence of the chief
enforcement counsel, who has investigated types of cases not previously taken on by … the board.”

Republican and Democratic election commissioners, however, denied they are trying to undercut Sugarman. She has the power to investigate  lawmakers from both parties who appointed the elections commissioners. Commissioners accused Sugarman of operating in secret, pursuing cases against legislators and campaigns to grab headlines, and failing to act on thousands of small but important problems such as failure to filing financial disclosure forms.

“She believes her work needs to be done behind closed doors, without accountability,” said Board of Elections Co-Chairman Douglas Kellner, a Democrat, who accused Sugarman of selective enforcement.  “As far as I can tell, the only unifying theme … is how much press attention they will ultimately generate ... I’m fed up.”

Board of Elections Co-Chairman Peter Kosinski, a Republican said:“There is no one person with unfettered authority to pursue certain matters.”

Sugarman responded that the board overstepped its authority. She said she was hired as an independent enforcer, although a Board of Elections commissioner said the word “independent” was struck down by legislative leaders in the final wording of the law that created the office.

Cuomo had appointed Sugarman, a longtime aide, four years ago. The Moreland Commission on Public Corruption had recommended an independent enforcement counsel be created because many probes of potential election fraud and abuse had been stymied by a split vote of the board equally divided by Democratic and Republican appointees.

A Cuomo spokesman, Tyrone Stevens, said the governor opposed Wednesday’s action.The new regulation “are unnecessary and ‎could harm the operations and the independence of the enforcement counsel's office.”

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