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Cuomo appoints commission to probe the legislature

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has joined forces with the New York State Attorney General to create a commission with wide ranging powers to investigate corruption in the state legislature. This move follows a legislative session during which nearly three dozen state lawmakers have been indicted, arrested, or jailed.

Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick was named a co-chair of the commission, and Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney will serve as a member of the panel.

At the announcement Tuesday, the governor told the assembled district attorneys from across the state, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and other private attorneys and academic experts on the commission that they are charged with rooting out wrong doing.

“Your mission is to put a system in place that says ‘we’re going to punish the wrong doers,’” Cuomo said. “They will be punished.” The governor says he also wants the commission to design a new system that will discourage corruption in the future.

Cuomo already has the power, under the state’s over 100-year-old Moreland Act, to investigate executive agencies and he’d already said he planned to probe campaign filings at the notoriously lax State Board of elections.

But, by naming Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to the commission, the powers of the Moreland Commission have been greatly expanded to include all branches of government. Schneiderman says the attorney general has broad statutory jurisdiction, and he’s extended those powers to the commission by appointing all of its members as deputy attorneys general.  

“This commission will be uniquely empowered to take a top to bottom review of all aspects of our state government,” said Schneiderman. “The people of the state of New York want real reform.”

In addition to Board of Elections filings, the commission could look into potentially improper use of member items -- which are grants given to lawmakers in the past to fund pet projects in their districts. Several legislators have been accused or convicted of misusing the grants for their own personal gain. Cuomo says he’d also like to investigate the entities registered as the not for profits  known as 501(c)(4)s, that he says are used as loopholes to hide the identities of donors.

Commission Co-Chair Fitzpatrick says the investigation will have one overall guiding principle.

“We’ll do what 'Deep Throat' told Bob Woodward to do,” Fitzpatrick said. “Follow the money.”

Karen Scharff, with the government reform group Citizen Action calls it an “impressive bipartisan commission.” She says it’s important that the commission will also be charged with coming up with recommended changes to a campaign finance system that she says amounts to legalized bribery.

“I’m sure that as they look into campaign filings they’ll find illegal activity,” Scharff said. “And they’ll find an even more overwhelming abundance of perfectly legal activity that shouldn’t be legal.”

Cuomo says he created the investigatory commission because the state Senate and Assembly rejected his package of bills to clean up corruption.

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says he “looks forward to working with the commission” to come up with reforms to reduce the influence of money in elections.

A spokesman for the Independent Senate Democrats, who rule the Senate in a power sharing deal with Republicans in that house, says the IDC would have preferred legislation, but “if this Commission helps root out corruption, then we welcome it.”

But Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos has called the Commission a “witch hunt.”

Cuomo says that’s not the right analogy. “This is not about looking for something that’s not there,” said Cuomo. “ The truth is the exact opposite.”

The governor says he still believes 99 percent of state lawmakers are honest, and believes the commission will vindicate them.
When Cuomo was asked what would happen to lawmakers who do not cooperate, he had a simple answer.

“It’s called a subpoena,” he said.

The commission did not rule out forcing legislative leaders to come before the panel. If the commission finds any new illegal activities among lawmakers, it can refer the charges to the state’s district attorneys, several of whom are already on the panel, for criminal prosecution.  

A preliminary report is due by the end of the year.