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Editorial: NY State anti-corruption panel gets tough

Governor Andrew Cuomo announces his appointment for the

Governor Andrew Cuomo announces his appointment for the Moreland Commission to investigate the state legislature at Hofstra University Club. (July 2, 2013) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

The gloves are off. New York State's Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption last summer politely asked legislators earning more than $20,000 a year in outside income to shed more light on their clients and pay.

The answer was a thunderous silence in public from those asked to make the disclosure.

Behind the scenes, however, there was a fierce struggle taking place between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and members of the commission who wanted to cast a wide net.

He created the commission as a way to embarrass the legislature into passing a tough ethics reform law after legislators rebuffed his efforts earlier this year. So determined was Cuomo to get back at the lawmakers that he enlisted Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to appoint the commissioners as deputy attorneys general, giving them the power of the subpoena for records and to compel witnesses to testify under oath.

Cuomo had recruited high-profile district attorneys and criminal justice experts for the commission and staffed it with aggressive prosecutors to do the day-to-day work.

It seemed, however, that the commission got a little too independent. Soon there were reports that the governor's staff was trying to stymie a broad probe, one that would have included a review of accounts that supported Cuomo's legislative agenda. The governor's enthusiasm seemed to waver. As news media editorial boards and good government groups wrung their hands, there was concern that the commission's work would be limited and its reputation would be tarnished.

Now all seems back on track.

The commission's co-chairs -- Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, Onondaga District Attorney William Fitzpatrick and former New York City federal prosecutor Milton Williams Jr. -- announced Tuesday that they would use subpoenas, if necessary, to compel information from legislators about their outside income as well as the "housekeeping" accounts of political parties and legislative campaign committees. Those lawmakers include Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Senate co-leaders Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) and Jeff Klein (D-Bronx).

"Everything is on the table. We are looking at everything," the three commission heads said in a statement.

This is a giant step forward.

Members have plenty to examine in their fact-finding mission:

Campaign housekeeping accounts can collect unlimited cash for "party-building activities," state law says. But how expansive is the working definition of "party-building"? Some $98 million has found its way into the housekeeping jar since 2006, by one account. The commission will look hard at cash flows in these accounts.

Who's employing our legislators -- and for what purpose and for how much -- when the Assembly and the Senate are not in session? Do public interests and private interests collide?

Accountability is imperative. The more the public knows about Albany's workings and backstage relationships, the stronger the mandate for reform when the commission finishes its work.

The commission's job is to build the strongest case possible for reform. It's good to see its members are ready to use every tool in their arsenal.