Moreland report: legislators misbehaving

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ALBANY—A long-awaited anti-corruption report recommends further disclosure for lawmakers as well as a system of public campaign finance as the antidote to a litany of misdeeds, some of which are detailed over its 101 pages.

“Our investigation thus far reveals a pay-to-play political culture driven by large checks, anemic enforcement of the weak laws we have on the books, and loopholes and workarounds that make those laws weaker still,” says the report, which was released today at 6:05 p.m. by the Cuomo-appointed Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. “What we can describe, though, is deplorable conduct, some of it perfectly legal yet profoundly wrong; some of it potentially illegal – and, indeed, this Commission will make appropriate criminal referrals at such time as it deems appropriate. New Yorkers already are too aware, from the laundry list of indicted public officials, that our State has been hit hard by corruption.”

Much of the work by the Moreland Commission is ongoing, the report says, but it hopes its recommendations will fuel discussions between the governor and top legislators over a new ethics package that has been under discussion by Cuomo and top lawmakers for months. 

A final report is expected at some later date to detail the full results of its investigations. 

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In the latest report, the commission says that it has already uncovered an email from a firm employing a lawmaker boasting that the value of a grant it won exceeded his pay. Commissioners are also examining the link between campaign donations and a real estate abatement program as well as a “carve-out” for a large retailer on the minimum wage increase enacted this spring.

Investigators have sent over 200 subpoenas, and have ingested hundreds of thousands of documents into an analytical platform called Palantir.

Most of the commission's recommendations have long been on the wish lists of good-government groups: lower limits on campaign donations, further disclosure of outside income and business clients, a $5,000 limit on LLCs, to reduce their power to amplify individuals' donating power, a $25,000 limit on donations to soft-money “housekeeping” accounts and, perhaps most controversially, the public campaign finance system.

A majority of commission members recommended the state adopt a 6:1 match for donations under $175, provided candidates for office meet certain thresholds for viability. The estimated cost is $62 million per year, and it drew immediate praise from left-leaning groups that have been pushing its adoption for years.

“The verdict of the Moreland Commission is clear: comprehensive campaign finance reform, including small donor public financing, is critical if we are going to clean up Albany,” said Lawrence Norden of NYU's Brennan Center. “Special interest money has corrupted our state government for far too long. It’s now up to leaders in Albany to heed the call and pass public campaign financing.”

Seven commissioners, including elected Republicans like Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita, Warren County D.A. Kate Hogan and Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, dissented.

“We believe that such assertions fail to take into account the realities of the how political campaigns are now conducted. In a post-Citizens United world, where millions of dollars of unregulated funds flood even local elections, the power of public financing to 'even the playing field' is greatly diminished,” they wrote. “Anytime taxpayer funds are expended, the burden is on those who wish to spend those funds to prove that the benefits are worth the cost. We do not believe that burden has been satisfied.”

Still, the stamp on the commission's work is unmistakably Cuomonian. The Democrat convened the 25-member panel in July after lawmakers left the Capitol without any substantive response to a string of public corruption arrests, and many of the report's recommendations, including changes to the bribery statute, were proposed as gubernatorial bills earlier this year.

Further, the report makes no reference to the Committee to Save New York—a pro-Cuomo group that was the leading lobby spender in 2011 and 2012, but whose donors were never disclosed—or to any potential malfeasance by the governor. Legislators have been quick to point out that he and his political affiliates have made prodigious use of some of the same “loopholes” and porous laws that the report decries. The report even lauds the current administration for its changes to the system of “member item” pork distribution, for which the governor has basically choked off funds.

During a hastily announced radio interview with former Gov. David Paterson, Cuomo admitted he had “no luck” convincing legislators to act on these changes, and said his new goal is to convince lawmakers that more changes are needed, even if they are not one of the bad apples cited in the report.

“As a collective, the public is saying, I lost confidence, I've lost trust,” he said. “As an individual they really believe they did what they had to do, and they didn't do anything wrong, so this isn't their issue. It's hard to communicate the essence of the collective.”

Cuomo will host his annual birthday fundraiser Tuesday night at the Roseland Ballroom.

Spokespeople for Republicans in the Senate as well as Democrats who dominate the Assembly declined to comment on the report. They are fighting commission subpoenas in court. Bronx Sen. Jeff Klein, who chairs the chamber's Republican-allied Independent Democratic Conference, said in a statement that coming negotiations must focus on solutions palatable to both parties.

“We find ourselves back at square one,” Klein stated. “As history tell us, it will take bipartisan leadership and cooperation to pass any comprehensive reform package. I am committed to working with my colleagues so that we can continue reforming Albany through the legislative process and improving upon the progress we have already made.”