Adjusting the Moreland script, Cuomo goes to war with former Senate allies

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ALBANY—Tension between an anti-corruption commission and legislators has resulted in a public war between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the G.O.P.-led coalition that runs the State Senate, culminating in an exchange of personal attacks yesterday between a Senate official and a Cuomo-allied party aide. 

The most recent escalation began last week, as the governor sought to recast his relationship to the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which was was proving to be a political headache. Legislators whose practices had come under scrutiny by the commission somehow captured the moral high ground, as Cuomo caught flack for interfering in the commission's workings.

The governor is now attempting to turn the public's attention back to the leadership in the State Senate, which is controlled by Republicans in an alliance with the four-member Independent Democratic Conference (in an arrangement that Cuomo had tacitly blessed even as other Democrats cried foul).

What had been a bilateral hymn of cross-party cooperation has descended into an ugly procedural fight, with the Senate side accusing the governor of being unwilling to taste his own medicine.

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One Senate-coalition source, talking on background, said, “The governor has 30 million reasons to make sure no one takes a close look at any of his dealings, and he's gonna fight any legitimate attempt to do so."

The contrast is quite striking: This weekend, at a political rally, Cuomo referred to I.D.C. senators as “co-conspirators.” In June, as a Cuomo-backed abortion-rights measure failed to come to a floor vote (and granted, it is doubtful that it had the votes to pass) and legislators adjourned without acting on any of the governor's public corruption bills, he refused, even when prompted, to single out the IDC.

The Senate's leadership coalition, uneasy with the direction of the commission, fired a shot last week when Senator Andrew Lanza of Staten Island introduced a measure that would require increased disclosure for anyone contributing to an executive branch official if they were also bidding on state contracts. Senator David Valesky, an I.D.C. member from Syracuse, was a bill co-sponsor.

Within hours, Capital reported that Cuomo had discussed the possibility of supporting primary challenges to I.D.C. senators with presumptive mayor-in-waiting Bill de Blasio. 

At the same time Republicans were preparing a challenge to the Moreland Commission's subpoena of their campaign records, which was filed in court late Tuesday. And Lanza introduced another bill that would make any future commissions formed under the Moreland Act more independent from the executive, explicitly citing concerns about Cuomo's role.

Since its formation in July, Senate leaders have worried that the scope of the commission's investigations would be dictated by politics. Cuomo appeared to confirm those fears when his aides told commissioners to hold back subpoenas for the Democratic State Committee, whose soft money “housekeeping account” raised $5.9 million for pro-Cuomo ads. (The governor has denied personal involvement in the commission's activities, but danced around questions about whether his aides influenced the process.)

Instead of a response addressing the bill's merits, either by the Moreland Commissioner of Cuomo's office, Democratic State Committee executive director Rodney Capel, who works closely with the governor's communications operation, went for Lanza and Savino's throat.

“In the time it took for Senator Andrew Lanza to draft a press release, he could have taken the simple step of disclosing his source of outside income to the people of Staten Island," a statement from Capel read. "What exactly is he hiding, and why is he deploying every distraction tactic available to do it? Don't his constituents have a right to know who he works for? And to his co-sponsor Diane Savino -- who has acted as a shield for Republicans working to block votes on public campaign financing and women's equality – I have two words: register Republican.”

Savino was no less aggressive in a retort:

"It is extremely disappointing to see a member of my own party respond to calls for greater transparency in government with such vitriol and hostility," she said, in her own statement. "What is Mr. Capel so desperate to hide? In case he's unfamiliar with how a bill becomes a law, a vote on the Women's Reproductive Health Act was blocked by Democratic Senators Ruben Diaz Sr. and Simcha Felder--neither of whom are members of the Independent Democratic Conference. Campaign finance reform met the same fate when two members of the Democratic Party again blocked the bill from coming to the floor. In contrast, none of the Governor's major priorities from this year--from raising the minimum wage, to creating Start-up New York, to extending a more progressive tax system for the middle class--would have gone anywhere without the IDC's support. Maybe if Mr. Capel and his allies were less worried about protecting their housekeeping accounts--and were more focused on lining up every democratic vote in the senate--we could finally move forward on some of these other more polarizing issues. Until then, he can spare me the bull or find himself another six-figure no show job.”

Negotiations about some ethics package that could be praised as acceptable by all sides and relegate the Moreland Commission to irrelevance apparently stalled before the latest political conflict erupted.

Some legislative aides dismissed the current blow-up as nothing more than offering ideas and posturing during negotiation. And it's anyone's guess how long the open sniping will continue — the Moreland panel is due to issue a report in December, and legislators will return to the Capitol to begin an election-year round of discussions about Cuomo's agenda in January.