Corruption commission seeks to turn N.S.A. software on Albany

Cuomo announces the anti-corruption commission. (Flickr)
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ALBANY—A special investigative commission wants to turn software designed for counter-terrorism investigations on New York lawmakers, Capital has learned.

The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption is finalizing a contract with K2 Intelligence for “reviewing immense amounts of data from disparate sources and of varied levels of organization to uncover conflicts of interest or possible corruption,” according to a letter from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office.

While the Moreland Commission has no set budget, the letter seeks approval to spend as much as $175,000 on the data analysis between now and the end of the year, drawing funds from the operating budget of the Cuomo-controlled Division of Budget.

The 25-member commission was convened in July by Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and is made up mostly of district attorneys. But there wasn't any substantial funding for its activities in the budget lawmakers adopted in March, and resistant legislators have strongly resisted the prospect of outside contracts.

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The state comptroller's office granted the commission an exemption from requirements that a contract be publicly noticed and bid on Sept. 16, but it has yet to be finalized, officials said. A spokeswoman for the commission, Michelle Duffy, declined to elaborate on its purpose, but said the contract should be signed this week.

The new contract comes as the commission is bogged down by reports of gubernatorial interference and a sense that it could simply become cover for a negotiated ethics package. But in a political system where lackluster enforcement has for years given cover to rogue lawmakers, the prospect of such investigative firepower is an indication of how its efforts could upset the current political order.

“If the Moreland Commission believes that it needs this capacity to dig deeper into Albany's political culture, then it's money well spent. But we won't know until the end of the day if it was,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It could be a million times more sophisticated analysis than we did in Project Sunlight, when we just put together the various databases. They're going to connect the dots.”

In documents obtained by Capital through the Freedom of Information Law, Cuomo administration director of administrative services Theresa Brennan, writing on behalf of the commissioners, outlined the commission's request for the contracting exemption and how it came to select K2 from a field of firms that also included some of the nation's major accounting firms.

Specifically, the commissioners sought a firm that could use Palantir, the same software employed by the trustee in the Bernie Madoff case since 2011.

“Palantir is a unique and versatile data analytics platform that was originally developed for use in the counter-terrorism context,” Brennan wrote on the commissioners' behalf. “Palantir has proven to be an invaluable tool in finding patterns and linkages within mass quantities of multi-modal data, and has since been adapted for use by numerous government agencies. For example, the Department of Justice, NYPD, F.B.I., N.S.A., and S.E.C. each use Palantir in a wide variety of criminal, civil, and intelligence-gathering matters. Palantir is widely acknowledged as the premier data analytics platform for large-scale intelligence gathering and complex investigations.”

In the weeks after its formation, the Moreland Commission sent letters to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics as well as the State Board of Elections, ordering each agency to preserve its documents. They maintain databases of lobbying contracts, campaign expenditures and donations that are publicly available, and as Horner noted, have been mined by good-government advocates and journalists to raise questions about lawmakers' motivations and potential conflicts of interest.

The commission has also sought additional, non-public information. It subpoenaed five major real estate developers in connection with a bill that granted special tax breaks for some of their projects. Commissioners also asked legislators to provide a list of their outside business and law clients. Legislators refused.

Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said, "Unlike the Feerick Commission under former Governor Cuomo, which requested and received an appropriation from the Legislature, the Moreland Commission has yet to give taxpayers a full accounting of its costs. It's disappointing that rather than operate in a transparent manner, this panel's actions are often shrouded in secrecy."

Here are letters outlining the commission's K2 request and the state comptroller's decision to grant an exemption from normal contract reporting requirements:

131010 Moreland Back and Forth by JimmyVielkind