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Editorial: Feds right to review Moreland probe files

Moreland Commission co-chair Benjamin Lawsky, left, superintendent of

Moreland Commission co-chair Benjamin Lawsky, left, superintendent of the New York Department of Financial Services, executive director of the Commission Regina Calcaterra and Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice at a meeting in Far Rockaway on Jan. 17, 2013. Credit: Steven Sunshine

The unfortunate blowup over the shuttering of the Moreland Commission's probe of state legislators is a reminder that ethics reform in Albany is incomplete. This is not the only lesson to be learned.

Whatever evidence or possible leads to criminal conduct the commission did gather now rest with Preet Bharara, the quite capable U.S. attorney in Manhattan, who has spun a web around corrupt elected and party officials. Federal prosecutors have ample resources and more elastic statutes to snare those who loot government funds and peddle the influence of their office for personal gain.

So have a go at it, but we are getting into "two wrongs don't make a right" territory here. Bharara's grandstanding grab for the files of the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption follows Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's blunt use of the investigative body as a cudgel to get ethics reform in Albany. Cleaning the cesspool on the Hudson is a herculean task, and these political miscues are distractions.

Cuomo created the commission in 2013 after the State Legislature failed to pass his proposed ethics reforms, including essential ones on full disclosure of a lawmaker's outside income, how many hours are spent on the clients' accounts and whether those clients do business with the state. Such a law would have reduced the legal graft enriching more than a few legislators.

Moreland was aggressive right out of the box and that alarmed the administration, which tried to control the guided missile it had launched. The commission targeted top lawmakers, seeking client names, payments and contracts with the state. In response, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate co-leaders Jeffrey Klein and Dean Skelos filed a lawsuit arguing that the subpoenas violated the separation of powers.

Although the commission released a damning report about the "pay to play" culture in Albany and the failure of the state Board of Elections to police campaign spending, the litigation over the subpoenas bogged it down. At the end of the budget negotiations last month, a deal on a watered-down ethics package that failed to include lawmaker-client disclosure was sealed. In return, Cuomo -- as he quite publicly said he would do all along in return for a deal -- folded the commission, which could have continued to 2015. Moreland ended up but a modest cudgel because lawmakers won't act against their self-interest.

The commission had no power to prosecute and the order creating it said any potential cases would be referred to the state attorney general or local or federal prosecutors. One news headline read, "Moreland Commission to go down in a blaze of referrals."

Bharara seized the messy end of Moreland to make his own headlines to burnish his reputation. Last week, he sent a made-to-be-leaked letter to more than two dozen commission members that was highly critical of Cuomo and fretted about Moreland's "premature" end. Bharara continued his criticism in a radio interview. "If you begin the investigation with a great fanfare, you finish those things," the prosecutor said on WNYC's "Brian Lehrer Show." "There was an appearance that cases were bargained away for a political deal." The remarks were so provocative that Lehrer asked Bharara if he would be running for something. The prosecutor said he would not.

Bharara was right to ask for the files; let's see what things he can finish. But his melodramatic posture leaves an "appearance," too -- that he is politicizing a premier U.S. attorney's office.