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Editorial: Cuomo panel should study Albany's corrupt culture

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York Attorney

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

After a legislative session that saw numerous politicians charged with corruption and no progress in passing any kind of ethics or election reform, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is angry, and serious about the problems. His official announcement of a Moreland Commission to investigate public corruption Tuesday made a clear statement to that effect.

Now the commission needs to come up with enough in its Dec. 1 report to make the public angry enough about the problems to convince legislators that if they oppose serious changes, they may be out of jobs. That means this commission needs to look under every rock, and detail all the scurrying it finds there.

The commission appears to be a powerhouse. Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman appointed the members of the panel as deputy attorneys general, which grants them subpoena power and the ability to investigate all matters that "involve public peace, public safety and public justice." Carte blanche, in other words. Its 29 members, co-chairs and special advisers include numerous district attorneys, including Democrat Kathleen Rice of Nassau County and Republican William Fitzpatrick of Onondaga County. Corruption cases are often difficult for local prosecutors because they arise on their own turf. Putting such cases in the hands of a geographically and politically varied commission makes it easier to pursue these cases outside of hometown and party politics.

Regina Calcaterra, having just finished her stint as the executive director for Cuomo's Moreland Commission on the Long Island Power Authority, will assume the same role on this commission. Her intensity and focus are well-suited to the task. And the highly regarded Danya Perry, an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan who has worked complex criminal fraud cases, will serve as chief of investigations.

Politicians, power brokers and deal makers who trade cash for influence should be prosecuted. But the biggest subversion of public trust in New York politics comes not from what's clearly illegal, but from what's not clearly illegal. If there is to be a grassroots push for real change, the commission also needs to expose this culture by connecting the dots from campaign contributors and law firm clients to the resulting legislation and lobbying of executive agencies.

This week, for the first time, outside income and its sources for Assembly and Senate members is being made available to the public. The information will be posted online. This ballyhooed ethics reform should open a window into the workings of Albany, but instead it will give us a blurry view through a dirty pane.

That's because legislators passed the disclosure rules in a way that allows their information to be turned in handwritten, typewritten and in just about any imaginable format. Instead, what we need are uniform disclosures that can easily be turned into a database, one that could tell the whole story of money in Albany. Instead, we'll have snippets that will be difficult to piece together to get the full Albany picture.

In the past seven years, 32 state-level elected officials have been charged with corruption, a demoralizing statistic. If this Moreland Commission can catch miscreants or deter future crimes, that will be a significant accomplishment. But if it can show how the whole, rotten system needs to be overhauled, and incite enough outrage to force real change in Albany, that will be a much-needed miracle.