Gov. Andrew Cuomo let the ethical ball drop in early April when he disbanded his Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, known as the Moreland Commission, just nine months after creating it. Fortunately, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, has picked up the ball and is running with it. New Yorkers should be cheering him on.
After Cuomo killed the commission as part of a political deal with the Legislature to enact new anti-corruption laws, an outraged Bharara publicly criticized the governor and took over the panel’s pending investigations. Last week he went further, issuing a subpoena to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the state’s ethics enforcement agency, requesting all complaints it has received about wrongdoing by public officials. Bharara has also started a grand-jury probe into state government corruption, something he seems genuinely offended by and has spoken out against on numerous occasions in the past.
Cuomo defended himself by saying he appointed the commission only after lawmakers rejected his ethics reform package, so it was OK to end it when they finally agreed. But the agreement failed to achieve some of the governor’s most important goals, including public financing of campaigns and increased disclosure of lawmakers’ outside income. The commission had been fighting with the Legislature for that information — and will now, conveniently, no longer be around to do so.
The commission had also been conducting investigations on such subjects as state lawmakers’ use of campaign funds and their allocation of state grants to nonprofits (a source of several scandals in recent years). On Wednesday, one of its members, the dean of SUNY Buffalo Law School, said it had uncovered potentially criminal offenses committed by about a dozen state legislators. Whatever his reasons for appointing the commission, Cuomo should have recognized the good work it was doing and allowed it to continue.
We trust that Bharara will look further into the commission’s old cases and pursue them if he finds evidence of criminal behavior.
We also hope, after reviewing all the complaints filed with JCOPE, he will let the public know about any that the agency should have pursued, but for some reason did not. Since JCOPE’s members are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, political pressure is always a possibility. A thorough look at the complaints should reveal if this played a part in some of JCOPE’s decisions.
Until recently, New York state’s ethics laws and their enforcement were a joke. That led too many public officials to think they could embezzle, accept bribes and otherwise enrich themselves or their friends at public expense. It took federal prosecutions to nail corrupt politicians like Sen. Carl Kruger in 2011 and Sen. Eric Stevenson this year.
The Moreland Commission could have done more to change the ethical climate in state government if given the time. JCOPE still has a chance to change it, depending, in part, on what Bharara finds. Unfortunately, there’s still a need for federal prosecutors to delve into corruption in New York.