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U. S. attorney not ruling out federal scrutiny of Cuomo's Moreland Commission

Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern

Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, on Dec. 5, 2013. Credit: Bryan Smith

ALBANY -- U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara Thursday wouldn't rule out investigating whether Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo or his aides improperly intervened in activities undertaken by the governor's recently shuttered anti-corruption commission.

Bharara, in a radio interview, questioned the disbanding of Cuomo's Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, informally known as the Moreland Commission, as part of a deal with state legislators to beef up enforcement at the state Board of Elections. Bharara said the commission will turn over all its documents to his office. Meanwhile, the governor downplayed criticism of his decision to shutter the commission.

Bharara, a Democrat like Cuomo, indicated he was troubled by reports of interference in the commission's actions. "I don't know what the facts are," Bharara said on WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." "What I can tell you is that it's impossible to overstate the importance of independence on the part of any investigative body."

Asked several times by Lehrer if he could rule out investigating Cuomo's office, the prosecutor said: "I'm not going to prejudge what we'll be looking at."

Bharara said the governor created the panel "with great fanfare," shuttered it "unceremoniously" and "thinking people wonder why that happened and want to get to the bottom of it."

The prosecutor added: "I think in the letter I sent to the commission I said there was an appearance that cases were bargained away in exchange for a political deal."

Cuomo and legislators in closed-door negotiations agreed to enact some election law changes and toughen bribery statutes. In exchange, the governor terminated the commission; it was originally slated to work through the end of this year.

Cuomo, appearing at a Rochester news conference at about the same time Bharara was on the radio, defended his decision to disband the commission.

"It was created to spur the legislation," the governor said. "I said repeatedly when the legislation was passed the commission would be disbanded."

Asked to provide documentation of this promise, Cuomo aides supplied a press clip from November in which he said the commission would be temporary but didn't specifically outline a trade for legislation.

Cuomo didn't answer questions about potential interference with the commission.

Hand-picked by Cuomo, the commission checked in with the governor's office weekly, per the executive order that created it. Cuomo last fall denied that he or his staff directed the commission. The governor's work schedules show that he met with commission chairs -- including Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice -- on consecutive days in September. Rice stepped down from the commission before announcing a run for Congress.

Last year, Bharara's investigations of state legislators helped spark, in part, the creation of the commission. After the prosecutor indicted or convicted several lawmakers, Cuomo pushed for an ethics legislation package. Failing to reach a deal with legislators, the governor formed the commission last summer to investigate legislators and potential campaign finance violations.

Among other actions, the panel subpoenaed five high-profile developers, sources said last year. At that time, watchdog groups reported that the Real Estate Board of New York, an influential lobby, contributed about $2 million to Cuomo and hundreds of thousands of dollars to state senators.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino said the Moreland Commission must continue and Cuomo's role in ending it must be investigated. "What answers did we get from the Moreland Commission?" Astorino told Newsday. "The investigation needs to continue. The public has a right to know it was concluded."

State Republican Chairman Ed Cox, who previously called the commission a "fishing expedition," criticized Cuomo. "From the start, Andrew Cuomo's meddling with his Moreland Commission corrupted his own corruption commission and doomed it to failure," Cox said in a statement.

In letters to the commission, Bharara asked it to "preserve all documents that may be under your control" -- including emails. His office expects to receive the Moreland Commission files this week.

"We're going to look at the documents," Bharara said in the interview. "We're going to see what the facts are, and if there are questions that are appropriate to ask . . . my office will ask those questions."

With William Murphy and Michael Gormley

State & Region