ALBANY _ Good-government groups on Wednesday called on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to respond, in person, to a “devastating” news report that he and his top aides interfered with a potentially powerful anti-corruption commission he ultimately shut down.
The New York Times in a lengthy story Wednesday said Cuomo and his aides dissuaded the Moreland Commission from investigating the governor’s campaign contributors and campaign spending.
Although Cuomo had recently confirmed regular contact with the panel and many elements woven into the story had previously been reported, the Times narrative included new emails that appeared to contradict public comments by the panel’s co-chairmen that had been supportive of the governor’s role.
“It paints a terrible picture of the administration directing and controlling a supposedly independent ethics investigation,” said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Susan Lerner of Common Cause-NY called the report “a shocking rebuke to the principles of our democracy.”
“The governor is answerable to the people of New York who should be deeply disturbed by the report's well documented pattern of interference,” Lerner stated Wednesday. “This report reveals the stark contradiction between the governor's public statements promising the independence of the commission and the behind-the-scenes actions of his staff. In an open society the rules apply to everyone, especially those entrusted to public service.”
“It’s hard to tell in the article if laws were broken,” Horner said in an interview. “Now all eyes turn to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is already investigating the Moreland Commission’s cases turned over to him after Cuomo disbanded the panel in March. Bharara was critical of Cuomo’s decision to abruptly end the panel’s investigations once he struck a political deal with the Legislature for some ethics measures.
NYPIRG said the report shows Cuomo used “the Moreland Commission as a political tool instead of allowing it to act as an independent investigative body as promised by the governor himself.”
NYPIRG calls for Cuomo to hold a press conference to answer questions and to release the internal e-mails cited by in the Times story. The story shows some evidence of Cuomo pushing the commission of prosecutors away from investigating some of his biggest donors and the state Democratic Committee he heads. The Democratic Committee had funded millions of dollars of TV ads touting Cuomo’s record.
When Cuomo impaneled the group of prosecutors a year ago under the Moreland Act he promised an independent commission that had freedom to investigate anything and anyone in state government, including himself.
“Trust is everything to me,” Cuomo said in a TV ad after announcing the anti-corruption effort in one of the biggest news events of his first term. “So I am appointing a new independent commission ... to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing. The politicians in Albany won’t like it. But I work for the people.”
On Wednesday, Cuomo aides declined comment. They referred reporters to a 13-page response to questions posed by the Times.
“Your fundamental assertion is that the commission was independent. It wasn’t,” Cuomo’s response stated. “This commission, by law, reports directly to the chamber. It is appointed by the governor. It is staffed by executive employees. Its appointees have pre-existing relationships with the governor.”
“You suggest specific instances of improper interference with respect to persons and conduct that you believe relate to our could embarrass the governor. The premise is legally, ethically, and practically false.”
Cuomo’s response elaborated on what the governor says he meant by “independent” in his public statements.
“The governor did not and could not mean that the commission as an entity was legally independent from him,” the response stated. “By ‘independence’ the governor meant that he had given the three co-chairs the sole authority to issue subpoenas so that the investigative decisions were theirs alone. And they were.”
The Times cited an internal email from commission Co-Chairman William Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County district attorney.
Cuomo’s office “needs to understand this is an INDEPENDENT commission and needs to be treated as such,” Fitzpatrick is quoted. The Times quoted one panel member who wasn’t identified in the article recalling that Fitzpatrick at one point said: “The interference has got to stop.”
Fitzpatrick didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. He had public stated the panel was independent of Cuomo.
The Times quoted Cuomo’s top aide, Lawrence Schwartz, as describing the administration’s involvement with the panel as one of adviser.