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Politics and Government

Cuomo's Moreland Act Commission -- potential and pitfalls

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, frustrated by what he says is the failure of the legislature to agree to a reform package, says he’ll follow through with a threat to investigate the legislature, using special powers given to him under the state’s Moreland Act. But there are potential limitations built into the act.

Cuomo says he did not want to compromise on a reform package that includes public campaign financing, and new prosecutorial powers for the state’s district attorneys to root out public corruption.

Cuomo says he will instead use powers under the state’s 106-year-old Moreland Act to look at campaign contribution filings at the state’s Board of Election, where he believes patterns of corruption and  fraud may exist.

“Follow the money,” the governor said. “Where does the money come into the system? It comes in through the campaigns through the Board of Elections.”

The Moreland Act is named after former Assemblyman Sherman Moreland, who was in office in 1907 and helped then-Gov. Charles Hughes create a commission to investigate the governor’s own insurance commissioner, who was believed to be corrupt.

Because of its origins, some think there are limitations on how far a governor can take a probe, especially when the governor wants to investigate another branch of government.

Richard Brodsky served in the state Assembly for several decades. He’s now a senior fellow at Demos and NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. He says, in an article for the Huffington Post, that Cuomo’s legal basis for using the Moreland Act to probe the legislature is “at best uncertain, if not flat wrong.”

“It’s specifically limited to investigations of the executive branch,” Brodsky said. “It specifically and explicitly is not to be used to investigate the judiciary or the legislature.”

Brodsky says one option for the governor would be to take on a partner, as his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo did when he created the Feerick Commission in the 1980s. Mario Cuomo named John Feerick a deputy Attorney General, and Feerick was able to employ the investigatory powers that the New York State Attorney General holds.

Governor Cuomo says he thinks he’s found a way around the Moreland Act’s limitations, though. He says by focusing on the Board of Elections, which is part of the executive branch, he’s found a back way in to examine campaign donations to legislators. He says the campaign filings at the board are a “portal into everything.”

“The board of elections is an executive agency, I have total authority over the Board of Elections,” said Cuomo. “So we can have an investigations commission through the Board of Elections.”

Bill Mahoney, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, has spent years analyzing campaign filings at the state Board of Elections. He says there is plenty there to examine. Mahoney recently finished a study that found over 100,000 violations of the current campaign finance laws in filings at the Board of Elections in the past two years.

“I would guess that the vast majority of them are just simple mistakes,” Mahoney said. “But it’s likely that there’s a few of them in there that are masking bigger things.”

Like hiding the identity of donors, he says, or even, bribery schemes.“With subpoena power, there might be more explicit cases that come out,” Mahoney said.  

Part of the problem is that the New York State Board of Elections has no investigator. The post has remained vacant for years. One of the governor’s reform bills would have created a new position of an independent investigator at the board.    

Brodsky, the former Assemblyman, says he’s not sure that investigating the legislature just because it refused to sign on to a bill is a good precedent to set.

“I’m not sure that the constitution contemplates gubernatorial investigations when legislation doesn’t pass,” Brodsky said. “If there’s a need for an investigation, it exists whether or not reform laws are passed.” 

Mahoney, with NYPIRG says a Moreland Act probe is at best only a temporary solution to ongoing corruption at the state Capitol. He says ultimately, the state Board of Elections needs to be restructured to end the present gridlock between the two major political parties, and the board must stop being a toothless tiger and start actually following up on countless campaign violations.