Cuomo Held the Strings in a Graft Hunt


Among Andrew M. Cuomo’s strengths, conspicuous piety would have to rank near the bottom. For most politicians, holier-than-thou is not a good look, and it is a particularly bad fit for Governor Cuomo. His considerable successes have been based on practical, hand-to-hand, knee-to-the groin political combat, not public sanctimony.

He proved that last year and confirmed it this week.

Last summer, drawing on powers included in a 1907 law that arms governors with a kind of investigative bludgeon, Mr. Cuomo set up what he said would be a completely independent special commission to investigate public corruption. Although it seemed likely the State Legislature would be the prime target, with one member or another being hauled into court every few months, Mr. Cuomo declared that the commission would have free rein.

 “Anything they want to look at, they can look at: me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman,” he said in August.

This was truly reckless language. There is no way on earth that he could have meant what he said.

And in a statement, Mr. Cuomo’s team said it was preposterous to think that the commission he said would be completely independent was really supposed to be independent:

“You suggest that the commissioners and staff wanted to be independent. Well they couldn’t be, because they really weren’t.”

The reason, the governor’s office said, is that the commission “was a pure creature of the executive,” meaning it existed only because Mr. Cuomo birthed, fed and watered it.

That statement, which ran to 13 pages, was issued as a reply to inquiries for an article in The New York Times on Wednesday that laid out how the special commission became a marionette theater, with the governor’s close aides pulling the strings at will.

They forced the withdrawal of a subpoena that had been readied for the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, and edited a preliminary report to excise language that would be painful to Mr. Cuomo’s financial backers.

It should be said that as a practical matter, the real estate board voluntarily turned over its documents to the commission.

If we can pretend for a moment that Mr. Cuomo never made those rash promises of independence, he had a point about the commission. After all, Gov. Chris Christie was mocked when an inquiry by his own lawyers purported to clear him of any wrongdoing in the George Washington Bridge traffic jam escapade.

“Why would anyone be surprised that the governor doesn’t want to be investigated by his own commission?” asked Peter Bienstock, a lawyer in New York City who was the executive director of a similar commission set up in 1987 by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, the father of the current governor. The city and state were then in the grip of serial corruption scandals.

 The commissions of both Cuomos were established under the state’s Moreland Act, and Mr. Bienstock affirmed that “a Moreland Act commission is a creature of the governor.”  (The group appointed by the current governor included individuals who were named temporary deputies of the state attorney general’s office, a legal tactic intended to give them the power to subpoena the Legislature.)

 The 1987 commission, led by John D. Feerick, then-dean of the Fordham University School of Law, did investigate campaign contributions to the governor, as well as other public officials. “We had no interference by the governor,” Mr. Bienstock said. It concluded that the campaign finance laws were “a disgrace and an embarrassment.”

“I could read sentences from those reports, and you couldn’t tell if they were written in 1987 or today,” Mr. Bienstock said.

The current Governor Cuomo said there was no point in repeating history.

“The governor said he was not redoing his father’s Feerick Commission, which lasted years, issued a number of predictable reports and accomplished nothing,” the governor’s office said.

Well, then. What did this commission accomplish? As of April, Mr. Cuomo had shut it down as part of a deal with the Legislature that included a budget, some tax changes, funding for charter schools and modification of state bribery statutes. The campaign finance laws, a “disgrace” to an earlier generation, remain largely intact.

On Thursday, Mr. Cuomo did not make any public appearances, and he was taunted by his likely Republican opponent in the November election. “It’s 2 p.m. Does anyone know where Andrew Cuomo is?” asked an email from the campaign of Rob Astorino.

Of course it’s not clear that, even wounded, Mr. Cuomo would be threatened by Mr. Astorino. “Who’s Rob Astorino?” asked a member of Mr. Cuomo’s former commission.

Source: NY TIMES