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Cuomo once backed AG's office to probe corruption

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, and New

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, right, and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman talk during a news conference at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. (July 2, 2013) Credit: AP

ALBANY -- As attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo had sought the legal power to independently investigate public corruption and avoid the need for ethics commissions appointed by governors.

"Why do you always have to set up another office?" Cuomo complained to reporters in 2009. "Give . . . [the attorney general's office] the authority and the jurisdiction to actually do the policing of politicians in Albany."

Yet after Cuomo was elected governor in 2010, he did not give that power to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who asked for it as recently as last year.

State Executive Law detailing the duties of the attorney general provides that "upon the request of the governor" the attorney general may investigate "persons indicted for corrupting or attempting to corrupt any member or member-elect of the legislature."

"The governor has the power to grant such a referral," said an April 17, 2013, letter from Harlan Levy, the attorney general's counsel, to Cuomo's counsel that was obtained under the state Freedom of Information Law. "A referral covering public corruption would be consistent with the governor's stated commitment to ending the culture of corruption in Albany and restoring public trust," Levy wrote.

Instead, two months later, Cuomo created a Moreland Commission on public corruption. The panel has been criticized for what was seen as a lack of independence from Cuomo. And the governor is now fending off accusations in a recent New York Times article that he improperly interfered with the commission to protect political allies and to focus the panel on the State Legislature.

Monday, Cuomo again denied interfering with the commission, saying the prosecutors who were the commission's co-chairs made all decisions on who to subpoena. Cuomo also said the commission couldn't be independent because he created it and it reported to him.

As for giving the attorney general the authority to investigate corruption, the Cuomo administration now says such an action would require legislation. Instead, the administration said, once Cuomo became governor, he found a better way to combat corruption. As part of a deal to end the Moreland Commission, Cuomo gained legislative approval to create a new enforcement office at the state Board of Elections. The office is headed by an investigator who worked for Cuomo when he was attorney general and most recently worked in his tax department.

"As the governor said when he was attorney general, increasing legislative oversight would require a change in the law," said a Cuomo spokesman. "Compliance with election law is now the responsibility of the Board of Election's chief enforcement counsel, the creation of which the governor campaigned on and succeeded in getting passed into law this year."

As attorney general, Cuomo had been skeptical of ethics boards appointed by governors. "You can go create another bureaucracy, and if it was a truly independent bureaucracy, I would support it," he said in the 2009 conference call with reporters. "Or you could do what I proposed three years ago. And two years ago. And one year ago: You could give the attorney general of the State of New York, which is an existing office, subpoena power to do the government corruption work."

Schneiderman, who appointed members to the Moreland Commission, declined to comment on the issue.

Because the Moreland Act restricts investigations to the executive branch to avoid violating the separation of powers protected by the state constitution, Schneiderman had to deputize commissioners so they could investigate and issue subpoenas involving the State Legislature.

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