Public trust is not restored — not at all

Clean up Albany – that was one of the main things Andrew Cuomo promised to do as governor.

He has actively, knowingly broken that promise and, furthermore, shown he’s part of the problem.

That’s the big takeaway from an investigative report in the New York Times Wednesday on how Gov. Cuomo’s office undermined and then disbanded the Moreland Commission he set in motion last summer.

Back then, he said he was giving the commission broad powers to investigate and prosecute public corruption.

“They’ll follow the money and go where the commission determines to go,” Cuomo said. He specified that they could investigate the doings of any state office, even his.

That was a lie, as the Times report makes clear. A team of Times reporters found that from the commission’s first months, every time its members sniffed around anyone connected to the governor, Larry Schwartz, the governor’s right-hand staffer, ordered them to steer clear.

What had been touted to the public and the commissioners as an independent agency was actually a tool of the governor’s office, as the commissioners soon realized. One of their top staffers was an agent of the governor’s office, working the commission from the inside and making sure no written report showed any hint of investigation into groups tied to the governor – such as the Real Estate Board of New York (a major donor whose intent seemed to be to buy favorable policies) and the Committee to Save New York (a huge pool of anonymously donated cash, tied to Gov. Cuomo). In many ways, from multiple angles, the governor’s office meddled with a heavy hand.

Commission members, many of them among the state’s top prosecutors, were appalled. Some quit. Others got paranoid.

In April, Gov. Cuomo declared victory and called the whole thing off. The Legislature had passed a watered-down ethics bill, and he said that solved the problem.

It doesn’t, of course. Not even close. As if we didn’t know from other sources, the Times report reminds us that the pay-to-play culture of political donations is alive and thriving under Gov. Cuomo.

In response to the Times, the governor’s office said the commission always worked for the governor’s office and therefore can’t investigate the governor’s office, since that would be a conflict of interest.

Oh, really? That’s not what the governor said before.

This was clearly a bait and switch.

The original point, according to gigantic banners that hung behind him at the launch press conference, was “restoring public trust.”

Gov. Cuomo’s actual point, apparently, was to make it look like he was doing something good without actually doing it – or at least not letting it be done to him. It seems that he would have been fine if the commission had busted some legislators he’s leaning on, giving him some leverage.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman bears responsibility for this as well. He had recommended several members, deputized commissioners and provided some staff support. As the state’s top prosecutor, he, not the governor, should have been in the loop with the commission’s doings. It’s actually a job his office could have done, if he had wanted that. But as a former Assemblyman, his ties to the legislators are strong, and it was his 2012 opponent, not him, who had made rooting out Albany corruption a top priority.

In this case, Mr. Schneiderman’s silence speaks loudly.

Now it’s up to U.S. Attorney Breet Bharara and his team, who took the Moreland Commission’s files in April, saying federal prosecutors would aggressively complete its “important and unfinished” work. He had been a friend to commissioners who wanted to do what they were supposed to do.

If the governor had let them do that, as he had promised, it could have been one of the best things a governor ever did for New York. But he had to control it, and in doing so, he crushed it – along with the hopes of all New Yorkers that this governor could actually clean up Albany.

When Cuomo ran for the job in 2010, there was, on one hand, amazing hope in his leadership ability, and also worry that he was a consummate Albany insider, a political player who wanted to be president.

He’s done some good things for New York, budget-wise, and it sounded like he wanted to do something truly great with the Moreland Commission. But on the other hand, he had made himself one of the commission’s obvious targets, and when it came down to it, he and his staff apparently chose his pay-to-play campaign money over actually cleaning up Albany.