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Bharara: No evidence of crime in interference of Moreland Commission

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Preet Bharara leaves federal court in Manhattan on Dec. 12, 2015. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Monday there was “insufficient evidence” to charge anyone with a federal crime for interfering with the Moreland Commission probe of Albany corruption that was killed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders in 2014.

Although Bharara didn’t name Cuomo, his statement suggested the governor won’t be prosecuted for allegedly trying to influence the Commission, which was looking into outside income of since-convicted legislators such as former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.

“After a thorough investigation of interference with the operation of the Moreland Commission and its premature closing, this Office has concluded that, absent any additional proof that may develop, there is insufficient evidence to prove a federal crime,” Bharara said in a statement.

The unusual statement – prosecutors typically refuse to confirm the end of investigations that haven’t led to charges – came at a politically opportune time for Cuomo, two days before his State of the State speech and just weeks after the convictions of Skelos and Silver led to new speculation the governor was at risk.

Cuomo’s office, which appeared to anticipate Bharara’s announcement, quickly issued a thank-you statement. “We were always confident there was no illegality here, and we appreciate the US Attorney clarifying this for the public record,” administration lawyer Elkan Abramowitz said.

But Bharara, whose office seized the Moreland Commission’s records in 2014 and has said they helped in building cases against Silver and Skelos, signaled that he is still focused on probing Albany, which he has described as a “cauldron of corruption.”

“We continue to have active investigations related to substantive inquiries that were being conducted by the Moreland Commission at the time of its closure,” said Bharara, whose ongoing probes include an inquiry into the award of a $900 million redevelopment contract in Buffalo to a top Cuomo contributor.

Cuomo created the Moreland Commission in 2013, giving it wide-ranging powers to issue subpoenas and investigate both legislative and executive branch corruption, but the governor, Silver and Skelos disbanded it as part of a deal on ethics legislation in 2014, less than a year after it was formed.

Bharara immediately seized its records to aid in his own Albany probes, and also began looking into reports that the governor’s office had tried to influence the Commission and get it to drop subpoenas. Cuomo argued that since he created the Commission, he was free to do what he wanted.

Legal experts said the fact that Cuomo aides had contacts with the Commission while it was operating was not a crime by itself, and Bharara’s statement likely implied that neither Silver nor Skelos have come forward since their convictions to offer damaging information about Cuomo’s role in killing it.

“Bharara understands that it’s against the public interest to permit a cloud to hang over an important public official’s head, so he decided to dispel the cloud,” said James Cohen, who teaches criminal law at Fordham Law School.

But Cuomo critics noted that Bharara’s absolution was limited – not covering possible substantive crimes unrelated to Moreland, such as the Buffalo investigation, or state law violations.

“The fact that insufficient evidence of federal crimes was available… is not the same as finding him innocent,” said Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who ran against Cuomo in 2014.

Astorino called for an independent prosecutor to look into state law violations. “The likelihood that state laws were broken was always the greater possibility,” he said. “I call on Mr. Cuomo to appoint that prosecutor now.”

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