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Challenger in New York's attorney general race focuses on corruption commission

Ellen Abbott
John Cahill says Attorney General Eric Schneiderman can discuss some aspects of the now defunct Moreland Commission. (file photo)

The Republican challenger in the race for New York attorney general has begun airing TV ads, and is making an issue of incumbent Eric Schneiderman’s role in a controversial ethics commission.

John Cahill, the Republican candidate for attorney general, has made several stops around the state in recent days, focusing on the controversial Moreland Act Commission on corruption.

Cahill says there are unanswered questions about how deeply involved current Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was with the commission. The commissions’s actions are now under federal investigation.

“It’s time for him to stop hiding behind the ongoing investigation of the U.S. attorney’s office and to start answering some basic questions about the role of the attorney general, and the role of his office in the Moreland Commission," Cahill said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo created the Moreland Commission, but Schneiderman played a key role because he deputized commissioners as assistant attorney generals, giving them the power to issue subpoenas.

Cuomo’s aides are accused of meddling with those subpoenas and trying to steer them away from Cuomo donors, and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is investigating. Neither Schneiderman nor his staff have been implicated so far.  

The attorney general has been silent about the commission, but says he has a very good reason not to speak because there’s an ongoing federal probe. Schneiderman spoke recently in Schenectady.

“I don’t comment on ongoing investigations,” Schneiderman said on Aug. 1. “My office is cooperating with the United States Attorney, and we’ll leave it at that.”

But Cahill says there are some explanations the attorney general can give without comprising the investigation.

Under the rules when the commission was first formed, the attorney general was permitted to appoint several commissioners, and the commission staff was to report to him each week on progress. Cahill says he’d like to know whether that occurred.

He says Schneiderman has also never said whether he agreed with Cuomo’s decision to disband the commission mid-investigation, as part of a state budget deal.

“These questions have nothing to do with the ongoing investigation,” Cahill said. “He needs to come forward and give direct answers.”

Cahill was a top aide to former Gov. George Pataki. He served as chief of staff and was the state’s environmental commissioner. He now practices private law with the former governor. Cahill trails Schneiderman by more than 20 points in the polls, and he’s raised far less money.

Cahill is using a good portion of the nearly $1 million he’s collected so far on television ads to run through the end of August.

Schneiderman, who has around $7 million in the bank, has reserved TV air time closer to the November election.

Schneiderman’s campaign issued a statement pointing out that since the political conventions in May, the incumbent attorney general has actually widened the gap over Cahill.

They also released a blog post charging Cahill with having views that are too extreme for most New Yorkers to accept. Cahill opposes a provision backed by many Democrats to codify the abortion rights in the U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling into state law.

The Schneiderman campaign says Cahill also worked as a top aide to Pataki when the former governor vetoed a bill to increase the minimum wage back in 2004.

No debates have been set in the attorney general’s race.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.