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Legislative leaders: Moreland's subpoenas an 'abuse of process'

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) talks to reporters

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) talks to reporters after a news conference at the Capitol in Albany. (May 15, 2012). Credit: AP

[UPDATED below with Skelos sending similar message to Republicans]

Using a special commission to investigate state legislators to achieve a political goal is “an abuse of process,” Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said in an e-mail to lawmakers Friday.

Although Silver (D-Manhattan), didn’t specifically criticize Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, he made clear he thinks the governor’s Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption is trying to pressure lawmakers into agreeing to change campaign-finance laws and that it has exceeded its authority by issuing subpoenas to obtain information about their outside incomes.

“One thing is certain: it is an improper and illegal use of executive authority for appointees of that branch of government to ‘investigate the Legislature’ merely because the commissioners would like to compel passage of proposed legislation,” Silver said in a message to Democrats who control the Assembly chamber.

The powerful Democrat called the fight “a matter of constitutional dimension affecting all Legislators without regard to political affiliation.”

Silver sent the e-mail on the day the Assembly and Senate were slated to file court papers outlining why they don’t have to comply with subpoenas issued by Cuomo’s panel, informally known as the Moreland Commission. The two houses have maintained – since the commission was formed in July – that “separation of powers” provisions in the state constitution prevent the panel from investigating them.

Cuomo launched the commission after legislators failed to pass a package of campaign-finance proposals that, among other things, would have given the governor the power to appoint a special counsel to investigate election-law violations. Cuomo also favored some form of using public funds to finance campaigns.

Since then, “good government” groups and panel leaders – including co-chair Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice – have made a push for public financing. Silver made note of that in his letter, saying the Assembly generally supports the concept but added that using commission subpoenas to compel lawmakers was wrong.

“The principal piece of contested legislation which has surfaced as a ‘demand’ is campaign finance reform,” Silver wrote.

“This particular piece has repeatedly passed the Assembly and we are committed to passing it again," Silver continued. "Nonetheless, the principle remains the same: it is an abuse of process to investigate legislators or harass their employers with overbroad subpoenas in order to force a vote, even if it’s a vote that we would otherwise support. For instance, as you will see in the papers that were filed today, the commission has demanded that employer law firms describe client activity over a 4-year period that have nothing to do with the legislator.”

The commission is slated to issue a preliminary report Dec. 1.

Cuomo's office referred questions to the commission, which didn't immediately respond.

[UPDATE]

  In a similar letter to Senate Republicans, Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said the commission's actions were "improper."

 “These actions amount to an attempt to coerce or threaten the Legislature and upset the separation of powers that exists between the executive and legislative branches, and cannot be accepted," Skelos wrote.

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