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Cuomo's Moreland Commission on corruption ready to report

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appoints the Moreland Commission

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appoints the Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption. (July 2, 2013) Credit: Darren McGee

ALBANY - Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's hand-picked Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption is poised to report recommendations this week, setting the stage for Cuomo to try to use the findings to push lawmakers to agree to change campaign-finance and other laws.

Legislative sources and lobbyists said lawmakers have discussed, off and on, how to reach a middle ground on a legislative package dealing with election-law issues, though how soon is uncertain.

Ideas floated during the Moreland Commission's deliberations include: toughening bribery laws; making it easier for local prosecutors to pursue political malfeasance; a statewide referendum to create a system to publicly finance some campaigns; and authorizing a public-campaign-finance "experiment" for a select office, such as state comptroller.


Rocky beginnings

The commission is scheduled to report to Cuomo Sunday, and Cuomo, a Democrat, has said he expects the recommendations to be made public Monday or Tuesday. Lawmakers aren't slated to return to Albany until January to kick off the 2014 legislative session, but the governor could call them back at any time if there's a deal.

Conversely, Cuomo has threatened to use the issue against lawmakers in next year's statewide elections -- a signal that he may view a fight with the legislature as a good political move.

Cuomo created the commission in July to pressure the legislature after it rebuffed his proposal to create a public-financing system for campaigns and tighten the rules on how campaign committees receive and spend money. He also wanted the power to appoint a special counsel to investigate election-law violations. Some lawmakers saw that as a deal killer that would have given the governor too much power.

Cuomo made the push after a spate of indictments and convictions of state legislators that he said shook the public's trust in government. The scandals included the arrest of state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Queens) on charges he and others tried to rig the New York Republican mayoral primary. Smith has pleaded not guilty.

The commission got off to a rocky start. It caught flak for sending subpoenas to legislative committees but not the state Democratic Party, which has bankrolled pro-Cuomo ads. Legislators quietly asked whether the panel would look at the biggest fundraiser in the state: Cuomo, who has stockpiled $28 million for his 2014 re-election campaign.

The Cuomo administration was accused of influencing the panel, and some watchdogs questioned how the 10 district attorneys on the 25-member commission -- including Nassau DA Kathleen Rice, a co-chair -- could criticize lawmakers' fundraising when they, too, solicit funds. Cuomo accused lawmakers of having "something to hide" when they balked at complying with subpoenas.


Change in tone

Advocates of using taxpayer funds for campaigns used the commission hearings to make their case. And, in what seemed to be a concerted effort, Rice; co-chair William Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County district attorney; and state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman began speaking out in favor of the idea all in the same week.

As with many controversial issues at the State Capitol, behind-the-scenes talks seemed to disintegrate for a while. The commission subpoenaed 32 state legislators seeking information about outside incomes. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), in letters to their members, said the commission was abusing its powers and trying to coerce a deal on public financing.

On Wednesday, the tone changed somewhat. The commission scaled back a subpoena it had served on the Senate Republican Campaign Committee. The GOP called the demand overly broad, saying it would force it to reveal campaign strategy to Democrats.

After the commission backed down and reduced the scope of the subpoena, the Senate Republican Campaign Committee said it would comply.

Cuomo said the development made a "mockery" of claims by Skelos and Silver that constitutional "separation of powers" issues between the branches of government were at stake. Legislators said Cuomo glossed over the obvious difference between targeting a campaign committee and the legislative body.

"There is a world of difference between a subpoena to a party committee, which falls within the Moreland Commission's mandate to examine campaign contributions and spending, and a subpoena that is a fishing expedition, if you will, aimed at legislators and their lawful activities unconnected to campaign contributions," said Silver spokesman Michael Whyland.

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