As far as Albany skulduggery goes, this one is almost too on-the-nose: a New York Times investigation out today alleges that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office interfered with an anti-corruption commission, making sure it was unable to investigate any alleged corruption emanating from people or groups with close ties to the governor.
Governor Cuomo set up the Moreland Commission last July; in a press release, he said its purpose was to “probe systemic public corruption and the appearance of such corruption in state government, political campaigns and elections in New York State.” The announcement said the commission would investigate allegations of bribery, campaign finance violations, compliance with lobbying laws, and “adequacy and enforcement of the State’s election laws and electoral process.”
Pretty sweeping, but according to the Times problems began almost immediately, when the Moreland Commission tried to subpoena a media-buying firm, Buying Time, which, as it turned out, had Cuomo as a client and had produced ads for him. A senior Cuomo aide, Lawrence Schwartz, told one of the commission’s chairs to “pull it back,” and the subpoena was never carried out.
The Times writes that the commission’s entire short life was marred by similar incidents, in which the governor’s office objected “whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.” They never attempted to investigate Cuomo directly.
The commission was supposed to deliver its preliminary findings December 1, 2013. According to the Times, Cuomo’s office futzed with that too:
In the end, the author was handpicked by the governor’s office.
The resistance was particularly overwhelming when the commission tried to include information that the governor’s aides said could reflect poorly on Mr. Cuomo.
In the end, the commission was disbanded by Cuomo after six months, far short of the 18-month timespan he’d earlier promised. Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for New York’s Southern District, is reportedly investigating the commission’s demise, looking through all the records and documents it produced in its short life.
The governor’s office issued a long response to the Times investigation, saying, essentially, that the commission was never meant to be independent: “No Moreland Commission can be independent from the Governor’s office. It is purely a creation of the governor’s power under the law.” But government watchdog groups like the New York Public Interest Research Group and Common Cause/NYhave responded to the Times expose with anger and concern. Common Cause told the Journal News in a statement, “The Governor is answerable to the people of New York who should be deeply disturbed by the report’s well documented pattern of interference. This report reveals the stark contradiction between the Governor’s public statements promising the independence of the commission and the behind-the-scenes actions of his staff.”
The timing of all this is especially hilarious, considering that just yesterday Cuomo’s two opponents in his upcoming reelection bid, independent Democratic candidate Zephyr Teachout and Republican Rob Astorino held a surprise joint press conference to press the governor on his failure to clean up Albany. The two candidates, who had never met before, both said Cuomo had utterly failed in his campaign promises to root out corruption; Teachout said state government dysfunction “has metastasized into corruption that would make Boss Tweed blush.”
The press conference was marked by an odd incident: midway through, five protesters showed up, bearing signs, four of them attacking Teachout and one Astorino. The protesters looked exceedingly young, in their early 20s, perhaps, and seemed nervous, shouting slogans — “Go back to Vermont, Teachout!” and “What have you done for Clear Channel, Astorino?” were two popular ones — then dissolving into giggles. At one point, after taking a few moments to gather their courage — “You go first,” “No, you go,” — they marched behind Astorino and Teachout and held their signs silently, not moving when an Astorino aide tried to politely shoo them.
The protesters were very shy about being photographed, ducking their heads or shading their eyes when the press swiveled towards them. As they stood behind Astorino and Teachout, they used the signs to hide their faces:
“Where are you guys from?” the Voice asked one of the women, midway through all this.
“We’re just Americans,” she responded, a little mechanically, and scooted a few inches away.
The Teachout campaign seems certain that the protesters were also Cuomo’s work.
“Those were Cuomo interns,” campaign manager Mike Boland told us. “Clearly. They had intern written all over faces. They were on his payroll, either directly or indirectly.”
Boland also believes that Cuomo was behind two objections that were filed with the State Board of Elections , challenging the legitimacy of the 45,000 signatures she’s collected that would allow her to appear on the Democratic primary ballot. Both people who filed challenges, Harris Weiss and Austin Sternlicht, appear from their social media profiles to be college students.
“Fling a petition challenge, to actually carry it out, can cost six figures,” Boland told us. “There’s no one out there besides Cuomo who has the resources and interest in doing so. But of course he got two 19-year-old kids to do his challenging for him.”
In the wake of the Times article today, Teachout issued a statement calling on Cuomo to immediately resign: “When a private indiscretion became public, Governor Eliot Spitzer quickly resigned from office. The Cuomo administration’s indiscretions – public acts that violate the public trust – are far worse. The administration’s direct obstruction of Moreland suggests there is deep corruption within the Governor’s office.”