New York anti-corruption commission is closing down
ALBANY – The special commission appointed last year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to investigate political corruption in New York is quietly winding down this week.
The governor said he appointed the group because lawmakers failed to enact reforms last year and is dismantling it because the legislature has now passed new laws to toughen bribery prosecutions and to establish a new campaign finance policing office.
“We are pleased that many of our recommendations, including to create an independent enforcement mechanism at the Board of Elections, will be implemented,” commission co-chairmen William Fitzpatrick and Milton Williams said in a joint statement.
Cuomo’s office and legislative leaders negotiated an agreement on the new measures. The chairmen also cited the new disclosure law for groups trying to influence elections.
The commission’s two dozen members, many of them county district attorneys, have no more meetings or final report planned. Some staff members have returned to their work at state offices; others have been referring out cases. Those have declined to say what cases they’ve referred to other authorities, or even how many. The commission also isn’t talking about plans for the information it gathered or subpoenaed.
The so-called Moreland commission has spent $1.36 million since last July, according to the state comptroller’s office.
Cuomo established the panel after abandoning efforts to get reforms through the legislature last year. Its creation also followed federal bribery and embezzlement charges filed against several state lawmakers.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School called the shutdown disappointing, noting that the commission “carefully detailed the toxic influence of big money on the state’s political system, and how that influence is directly related to our broken campaign finance laws.” Omitted from the new laws are reductions in any “sky-high contribution limit” or existing loopholes in campaign donation restrictions, according to the center.
Assemblyman Brian Kolb, leader of that chamber’s minority Republicans, said the “watered-down ethics package” that was enacted “hardly scratches the surface of what we need to do to restore public trust.” The legislator from Canandaigua and three-dozen co-sponsors have introduced a bill to prohibit using campaign funds for criminal defense and personal purposes.
Assemblywoman Sandra Galef, a Democrat from Ossining, and 40 co-sponsors have introduced another bill to require elected officials to forfeit their public pensions when convicted of a felony related to their office.
The new laws establish felonies of corrupting the government and corrupt use of position or authority.
The crime of corrupting government applies to public officials, or someone “acting in concert” with an official, fraudulently getting money, property or services from the state or a municipality. “Corrupt use of position” applies to officials or candidates who corruptly promise or use their authority to give someone a job or raise or who make offers in return for contributions. It’s also a felony to give contributions or gifts to get or keep a government post.
The chief election enforcement counsel will be named by the governor, subject to Assembly and Senate confirmation, for a fixed five-year term starting Sept. 1. The law establishes an enforcement division to investigate cases or complaints and a compliance unit to review campaign finance reports.
The new laws also require reporting by individuals, businesses or groups that issue communications to a public audience of 500 or more to support or reject a clearly identified candidate or ballot proposition, and require reporting aggregate spending over $1,000 and contributors. The provision excludes news stories and commentaries, internal communications and Internet postings except for paid advertisements.