Good Morning
Good Morning

Editorial: Why don't Silver, Skelos comply with Moreland probe?

The New York State Moreland Commission to Investigate

The New York State Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption meets at the Javits Center in Manhattan. (Oct. 28, 2013) Credit: Jason Andrew

The fictional thriller "Homeland" gets top ratings, but there's an edgier government drama unfolding locally with a compelling story line about the murky political intersection of duty and ethics. It's called "Moreland" and it's threatening to blow up Albany, the political cesspool on the Hudson, by the final episode.

The only satisfying ending is the one where New Yorkers get the reforms that will bring about a more honest state government.

To recap: This past spring, a spate of corruption scandals embarrassed Albany anew. Two assemblymen, a state senator and a New York City councilman were indicted on corruption charges. Perhaps most embarrassing, these stings were conducted by federal prosecutors who said there would be more arrests. Suddenly, it looked as though state government couldn't police itself.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo responded with a tough ethics bill that sought transparency about the source of legislators' outside income, how many hours they worked for it and whether these clients do business with the state. It even banned cross-endorsement by minor parties, another pit of favoritism for a few. But legislators balked even after Cuomo threatened to unleash a Moreland Commission investigatory panel.

So he did. But Cuomo's clever plot twist was to cross-designate investigators as deputy prosecutors with subpoena power, even if it meant teaming up with a strange bedfellow, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

But then the commission itself tried to break loose from Cuomo, becoming more aggressive, targeting key state lawmakers, and more significantly, their leaders, demanding lists of clients, details on client matters, what they were paid and whether clients had business before the state. The Moreland panel finally seemed poised to find out whether legal graft fuels Albany's power game.

On Friday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate co-leaders Dean Skelos and Jeffrey Klein filed a lawsuit to cancel Moreland, accusing the three chairs, including Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, of misconduct, claiming they were trying to "harass, intimidate and damage" the leaders. The suit claims the panel's demands for personal business records violate the separation of powers between the branches of government. Meanwhile, the officeholders have privately called Cuomo a bully and compared him to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, implying that the legislature would rather shut down than work with the governor.

On Monday, Cuomo said that more than half of the Democrats and Republicans had complied with the subpoenas and turned over business records. That action by some lawmakers, he said, "makes a mockery" of their leaders' claim of having the principled high ground. So if this isn't about separation of powers, Cuomo added, "then the imagination runs wild."

Cuomo wants legislative leaders to agree to ethics reforms in return for dissolving the runaway commission. That's all well and good if the reforms include detailed disclosure about the amounts and sources of outside income and potential conflicts, so the public can be reassured that lawmakers are not taking advantage of their offices. If it's another sequel of toothless reforms, don't bother.

"Moreland" is as compelling as it is shocking. But this isn't entertainment; it's about restoring public trust in Albany. And that's a series worth watching closely.