Yet Another Moreland Commission Targeting New York Corruption: Déjà Vu All Over Again?

The number of current Federal corruption investigations into New York State's political system with the promise of more to come has contributed to Governor Andrew Cuomo's declining poll numbers as more voters believe he should take a more active role in the State's current corruption scandals. The appearance of sitting on the sidelines while the U.S. Attorney cleans up State government for him certainly creates the appearance of weakness and a significant lack of leadership on his part. To counter this perception, Governor Cuomo is using his own campaign account to pay for a series television advertising showcasing his efforts to fight state corruption. In response, Governor Cuomo unveiled the creation of a Moreland Commission to investigate New York corruption. In his press release Cuomo stated that the Commission would undertake a "top to bottom investigation of State government" -- adding the "Commission's goals would generate transparency."

Is the creation of a Moreland Commission the nuclear option Cuomo has claimed it to be, or is the current Commission nothing more than an illusion designed to give the appearance of taking decisive action to attack corruption? When the various options that were available to the Governor are analyzed along with New York's rather lackluster previous attempts at cleaning up state government, one cannot help but be skeptical.

If the concept of a Moreland Commission sounds like déjà vu all over again, you would be right. Andrew Cuomo's father, Mario Cuomo, when facing the same corruption issues created a Moreland Commission in the 1980s to investigate what was labeled was a Culture of Corruption in state government. After some 40 months of hearings and generating headlines, the Commission produced only 20 some reports that were quickly forgotten and none of their recommendations produced any significant lasting results. Fast forward to the present, we now have Milton L. Williams, Jr. the current Commission's Co-Chair stating, "The culture of corruption" in Albany has undermined New Yorkers' faith in their government."

A Moreland Commission is an inherently ineffective way to combat corruption. The issuing of public reports and the holding of sensationalized public hearings contributes little to mitigating the problem. Immediately after a Moreland Commission hearing there might be some reticence on the part of state political figures. The hearings will no doubt lead some officials to become a bit more careful in their activities. However, in a short time the political establishment's collective egos and arrogance will have them believing they can resume their improper activities.

At this point the primary focus of the Commission will be the Legislature. It is safe to say that New York did not earn an overall corruption risk grade of "D" based solely on the legislative branch alone. It would be unrealistic to believe that Governor Cuomo would want the Commission to look into his own campaign finances and the relationships between himself and his biggest donors. One donor has actually donated $625,000 into Cuomo's 2014 reelection bid. At this point Cuomo is running unopposed and is not expected to face a significant challenge.

Governor Cuomo has hyped transparency as being essential to good government. Transparency is also one of the main areas that the Commission is tasked with reviewing. Governor Cuomo's penchant for secrecy is well known. It has been reported that Cuomo's staff removed documents from the state archives covering Cuomo's tenure as Attorney General. In addition Cuomo sends untraceable Blackberry messages rather than emails. Also it is certainly ironic that any legislation for a more open state government will be negotiated in secret by Cuomo; Dean Skelos and Jeff Klein, the Co-Presidents of the Senate; and Sheldon Silver, the Assembly Speaker. Collectively they are known as "The Four Men in a Room" -- one of the most dysfunctional ways of governing that ever existed.

Ten members of the Commission are District Attorneys. Three of whom are from the State's northern most and least populated counties. District Attorneys always had jurisdiction to initiate corruption investigations. However, District Attorneys being a significant part of the local political establishment are very adept politicians and as such they generally shied away from corruption investigations. In many of the counties, particularly in the lesser populated ones the professional, political and personal inter-relationships between the District Attorney and other political officials becomes blurred. This can contribute to a reluctance to initiate corruption probes. Take for example the Upstate ticket fixing scandal. In that case judges, D.A.s and local and police officials were writing letters to out-of-area judges and between themselves asking that speeding tickets, and even DWI tickets be voided for friends, family and others as a favor. The mere fact that these Upstate officials would put such an improper request in writing is just one example of their lax attitudes towards favoritism and official misconduct. Corruption investigations are never the best career move for local District Attorneys.

Many of the District Attorneys particularly in the more rural counties lack the expertise to conduct corruption probes. Corruption cases tend to be controversial, complex and high-profile. Corruption investigations are also politically sensitive, complex and controversial. In the typical public corruption prosecution tremendous pressure is often placed on the District Attorney to perform in a credible manner. This pressure is significantly amplified in large part due to media coverage, as well as the superior skills and expertise of the defense attorneys. Upstate District Attorneys simply cannot compete with the resources of the nationally recognized law firms that are retained in these cases. In addition, the targets tend to be politicians or individuals with significant influence. Many targets possess the power to destroy the career of a District Attorney. Federal law enforcement sources believe that a significant number of New York District Attorneys have avoided corruption inquiries merely on the remote possibility that the individuals involved would adversely impact their career.

Among the options that were available to Governor Cuomo was to appoint the current Attorney General a special prosecutor and provide him with a strong mandate to investigate and prosecute all forms of public corruption. When Cuomo was Attorney General, he championed a strong Attorney General's office. Both he and Eliot Spitzer leveraged the AG's position into successful bids to become Governor. However, now as Governor, Cuomo has actually attempted to curtail or outright eliminate the current Attorney General's power to investigate and prosecute public corruption matters. The second option that Cuomo had available to him was to allow the current U.S. Attorney to investigate all allegations of political corruption within the State. Cuomo even had the option of requesting a joint Federal-State taskforce and have state prosecutors cross designated Special Assistant U.S. Attorneys. Federal prosecutors are provided with broad power and resources to investigate and prosecute local and state corruption. Career Justice Department prosecutors also have greater detachment and independence from regional political pressure. Also, Federal agents and U.S. Attorney investigators have vastly superior experience and training in corruption and other complex matters than local and state police investigators.

There is no doubt that political corruption has the power to cause the public to lose confidence in their elected leaders. As a result only the most idealistic believe that our elected officials make decisions solely based on what is in the public's best interest. The cynics believe the special interest of their donors is of prime importance to politicians. The perception of many New Yorkers is to acquaint campaign contributions with political corruption. And New York politician's allegiance to special interest groups is legendary. The public cannot help but to think that campaign contributions are not made by large donors without the implicit expectation of a quid pro quo by the elected officials and the doling out of political favors.

Lack of election reform is one of the underlying causes for political corruption, greed and ego are the other causes. Political corruption is not exclusively a partisan issue or confined to any one branch of government. The sooner the current Moreland Commission recognizes this, they can recommend real and substantial changes. But that alone is not enough, the Governor and the Legislative leaders need to implement real transparency and public input when implementing change. Unless this current Commission, the Governor and other state-elected officials get serious about political reform then the best course of action is to allow the United States Attorney to implement reforms through criminal prosecutions. Otherwise the public will be seeing yet another Moreland Commission in their future.

It has always been a basic tenet of our nation's founders that the prevention of political corruption is required for government to work properly and in the interest of the electorate as well as to preserve public confidence. The United States Supreme Court has stated: "A democracy is effective only if the people have faith in those who govern, and that faith is bound to be shattered when high officials and their appointees engage in activities which arouse suspicions of malfeasance and corruption."