Cuomo bails out on fighting corruption

Convening the so-called Moreland commission to investigate and prosecute corruption of public officials was one of the better things Andrew Cuomo has done as governor. Shutting it down prematurely is one of the worst.

We suspect it will haunt him for a while. Public trust in politicians is extremely low right now, and abandoning the Moreland commission makes it worse.

When the governor announced the commission last summer, he said its purpose was to root out corruption. Now he says the only reason he did it was to pressure state lawmakers into enacting reforms. Now that they’ve just passed laws to toughen bribery prosecutions and to establish a new campaign finance policing office, he’s calling off the dogs.

That’s like laying off an entire police force because drug-dealing sentences get tougher, or because a neighborhood watch program starts up. It’s ridiculous.

That’s especially true since, in this case, the neighborhood watch would be the lawmakers policing themselves. That’s an idea only someone inside the state Capitol would love – or else one of the many special interests trying to bribe lawmakers.

The public still needs someone to catch the bad guys – a group of people disconnected with the politicians, working to unearth the rot festering in Albany. For a few rare months, we thought we had that, but now the state’s power brokers have yanked it away.

There can be no doubt there’s plenty of corruption to find. Quite a bit has been proven in court. The latest was Assemblyman William Boyland, D-Brooklyn, convicted last month of 21 counts of bribery, mail fraud and extortion. Many more, surely, are getting away with the same kind of things and worse. It’s part of the Albany Capitol culture. After all, who puts all that money in politicians’ war chests? Business people, unions, and others with proverbial dogs in the fight. Why do they do it? To get favors in return.

Year after year, lawmakers resist reforms to campaign finance laws. New York is among the nation’s most permissive states in terms of campaign donations, with extremely high limits and plenty of loopholes, and they don’t want that to end. Their new laws, for instance, don’t touch them.

The Assembly and Senate power structures are also a problem – especially the Assembly because it doesn’t have a term limit for speaker the way the Senate does for its majority leader. Last year we learned that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had used more than $100,000 of taxpayers’ money as hush money to pay off women accusing one of his Assembly allies of chronic sexual harassment.

Andrew Cuomo is far from the first governor to roar in and wield a hammer of reform, and he’s not the first to back off after a few years of dealing with the Legislature, either. But this is a huge backing off.

The Moreland commission, in appearance at least, was real-deal reform, much more so than other recent efforts: ethics committees and the like. Moreland’s two dozen members included many local district attorneys out of the main Albany loop, including Franklin County DA Derek Champagne and Essex County DA Kristy Sprague. State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was to deputize commission members, giving them broad authority to investigate any branch of state government. They could refer misconduct cases for prosecution and also recommend changes to laws and ethics rules.

For Gov. Cuomo to give all that up in a state budget deal is infuriating. Making it worse, he indicated Thursday that he never meant it to be more than a bargaining chip.

“It was a temporary commission,” he told reporters in suburban Rochester. “We needed laws changed, and that’s what Moreland was about.”

That’s all, huh?

The commission made a preliminary report in December that showed some promise. And then nothing.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has reported that Cuomo interfered with the commission as it tried to investigate some of his allies.

We don’t know what happened, but the public needs to know.

Thankfully, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is on our side. He, too, doesn’t want a good step toward justice to end in shameful failure. His prosecutors, who have already busted several state lawmakers, are taking the commission’s remaining files and plan to complete the investigations.

In a radio interview Thursday, Mr. Bharara declined to say whether his investigation will extend to Gov. Cuomo, in light of the Times report. Mr. Bharara said he and his team will go wherever the facts lead.

“The bottom line for us is we are prosecutors and care deeply about public corruption,” he said.

That’s excellent. It’s sad, though, that once again, his agency seems to be the only one doing anything about it.