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State GOP leader Ed Cox criticizes Cuomo's ethics panel

Kathleen Rice, co-chair of the State Moreland Commission

Kathleen Rice, co-chair of the State Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, speaks with the defendants at the Javits Center during third public hearing in Manhattan. (Oct. 29, 2013) Credit: Jason Andrew

ALBANY -- The head of the state Republican Party criticized an ethics panel formed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as a "purely partisan, one-sided political witch hunt" Thursday as tensions between lawmakers and the governor continued to escalate.

GOP leader Ed Cox called Cuomo's Commission to Investigate Public Corruption "deeply troubling" and said it needs to focus on executive branch officials, not just the State Legislature. Cox questioned whether the panel, often referred to as the Moreland Commission, was out to investigate corruption or advance Cuomo's political agenda.

"Unless the Moreland Commission thoroughly examines the executive branch of our state government, the only result will be a legally questionable, one-sided report that may already have been written by the governor's staff for the same political purposes for which he formed the Moreland Commission," Cox said. "And it will be the corruption of a commission on corruption."

Cuomo, during a radio interview, responded: "I don't know what he's talking about."

But the governor continued to criticize legislators, saying lawmakers' ethics could be a factor in the 2014 elections. "Next year is an election year, and it will be an accountability year," Cuomo said on The Capitol Pressroom, a public-radio program.

The back-and-forth capped a remarkable 24-hour window that saw legislators -- Democrats and Republicans -- squaring off against commission members and the state Democratic chairman, through sharply worded news releases, court briefings and even legislation.

At issue is a push by Cuomo to enact new ethics laws after a spate of indictments and convictions of state legislators last spring. Cuomo wanted a legislative ethics package, but it included a proposal legislators considered a non-starter: allowing the governor to appoint a special counsel to investigate election-law violations, which they considered an expansion of the governor's powers.

Cuomo then launched the corruption panel.

The commission, co-chaired by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, has subpoenaed campaign committees tied to Democrats and Republicans in the legislature, but not the state Democratic Party, which has helped produced promotional ads for the governor.

On Wednesday, a lawyer for Senate Republicans filed a court brief asking a judge to quash the subpoena, saying the commission exceeded its authority. The commission issued a statement vowing to win in court.

Separately, Sens. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) and Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) introduced legislation that would mandate future commissions be independent of the governor.

That triggered state Democrat chairman Rodney Capel, who was installed by Cuomo, to accuse Savino of acting as a "shield for Republicans." Savino fired back, saying Capel should "spare me the bull or find himself another six-figure, no-show job."

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