BY MICHAEL RICONDA
Ever since its abrupt end in April, the Moreland Commission rose eyebrows not only with its investigations of high-profile Albany corruption, but also its sudden demise, the product of significant interference from the governor himself.
A recent New York Times expose written by Susanne Craig, William K. Rashbaum and Thomas Kaplan highlights just how deep such interference reached as Cuomo’s aides quashed investigations and shielded officials and groups from the prying eyes of the 25-member commission. According to the Times, investigations into improper use of campaign funds, contributions and other financial improprieties often led nowhere due to political obstruction from the upper echelons of Cuomo’s Administration.
The Commission was made up of some of the state’s leading prosecutors, attorneys and professors. On July 2, 2013, those authorities were given free reign to conduct investigations into Albany officials’ wrongdoing, even if that meant investigating the fundraising of Cuomo himself.
The reality of the situation turned out to be much different. When subpoenas were sought for financial backers of Governor Cuomo, Moreland Commission Executive Director Regina M. Calcaterra attempted to shut them down. When that did not work, word came directly from the Governor’s Office not to follow any trail of clues which led to the governor.
The Commission eventually grew divided between Cuomo loyalists and genuine investigators, especially when many began to suspect Calcaterra was monitoring the Commission’s activities and reporting them back to Secretary to the Governor Larry Schwartz. Eventually, the co-chairs of the Commission informed Chief Investigator E. Danya Perry to only notify Calcaterra of subpoenas just as they were about to be served, limiting her participation and, by extension, Schwartz’s interference.
The Commission only deteriorated from there. William J. Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County District Attorney who co-chaired the Commission with Nassau County DA Kathleen M. Rice and former state and federal prosecutor Milton L. Williams, were eventually told by Schwartz that the Commission could only investigate the Legislature, a contradiction of prior statements which suggested the Commission had free reign.
With a new strategy of subpoenaing law firms and partners associated with legislators, the Commission continued to send out subpoenas, though it also continued to face resistance. Legislators predictably balked and attempted to legally stall investigators while Cuomo began to push for an ethics reform package, one which eventually passed in a substantially weakened form.
Among the most notable of the obstructions was a subpoena to Buying Time, a media-buying firm which had received $4 million from the Democratic Party and another $20 million from Cuomo. Though the Commission did not specifically target Cuomo’s payments, Fitzpatrick was still forced to rescind the subpoena, only managing to submit one to Buying Time in October 2013 after Cuomo began being cast as a hindrance to investigations in the press.
The final straw came soon after the submission of the Commission’s preliminary report in December 2013. Though Perry wished to include a number of improprieties and recommendations for reform, most of these items were cut out of the final report. Rice and Perry resigned early in 2014 and though the commission did produce 20 possible cases for prosecution against state legislators, it ultimately accomplished much less than its lofty goals before suffering an untimely death.
What the New York Times ultimately suggested was that the Moreland Commission was meant to function as political pressure on Cuomo’s adversaries, not serious law enforcement action. In the end, Cuomo managed some ethics reforms and referred to the Commission as a success, but observers might see far more if they pay attention to the Commission’s work instead of the others’ interpretation.
Though Cuomo initially characterized the Commission as independent, by the end of this misadventure, the governor was defending his participation by arguing it was his commission all along and he could do with it what he pleased. In a twisted sense, this might be the truest statement Cuomo made about the whole endeavor.
After infamously ranting to reporters this spring that the commission was “his” commission and staffed by “his” appointees and thus it was impossible he could interfere with it, as it was “his,” Cuomo doubled down when questioned again by the media and by federal prosecutors looking into the commission’s findings and its conduct. Cuomo said,“A commission appointed by and staffed by the executive cannot investigate the executive. It is a pure conflict of interest and would not pass the laugh test.”
The Republicans are looking to seize on the NY Times report, as it feeds into gubernatorial candidate Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino’s narrative that Cuomo has built a house of corruption. “Governor Cuomo is in big trouble. Today’s bombshell New York Times investigative report reveals clear obstruction of justice and calculated public dishonesty by Mr. Cuomo and his subordinates. We applaud the United States attorney [Preet Bharara] for his work to levy justice on Moreland’s targets, and on those who interfered with the Commission to protect Mr. Cuomo and his political allies. We urge the greatest expediency possible these deliberations. New Yorkers cannot afford to have a crook in the Governor’s Mansion,” Astorino said.
Ironically, only one day earlier, chairman of the US Republican Governor’s Association Chris Christie, governor of neighboring New Jersey, had described Astorino’s race as “unwinnable” and said the association would not be donating to his campaing. This led Astorino to claim Cuomo and Christie had a sweetheart deal.
The face of New York corruption himself, former Republican US Senator Alfonse D’Amato, then chimed in, stating that Astorino’s remarks were unbecoming and showed he was not worthy of the office of governor.
Little did the former Republican senator turned money hungry lobbyist D’Amato know that Astorino would be partially vindicated almost immediately by the report from the “grey lady.”