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Moreland Commission report draws reaction from both sides

Matt Wade

Advocates and lawmakers at the New York Capitol are reacting to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s anti-corruption commission report. It offers scathing criticism of what the commission says is a corrupt culture in Albany, and recommends numerous reforms.

The Moreland Act Commissioners offer withering criticism of what they say is a pervasive culture of illegal corruption and what they call legalized bribery ingrained in a campaign finance system where large donors hold sway over which legislation gets approved, and which bills are suppressed.

The majority of the commissioners recommend enacting New York City-style public campaign financing for statewide elections, saying it’s the only way to end the influence of large money donors.

Reform advocates are pleased. Karen Scharff, with Citizen Action of New York, is part of a coalition that’s been pushing for a publicly funded matching small donor system.

“This is really an historic opportunity, and I hope a turning point,” Scharff said. “The solutions they laid out were quite comprehensive.”

The commission recommends closing loopholes that allow limited liability corporations and party housekeeping accounts to shirk existing limits for campaign contributions. They believe LLC’s should be held to the same $5,000 limit currently in place for corporations.

The commissioners also say the state Board of Elections should be stripped of their enforcement powers, and an independent enforcement agency should be established instead. They say the Board of Election’s current structure, with two commissioners from each major party has led to a tacit, bipartisan agreement to do nothing.

Bill Mahoney, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says it’s a sensible step.

“We’re very pleased that the Moreland Commission has decided to take this completely away from their hands,” Mahoney said. “And create a new entity that is in charge of campaign finance.”

The report says that there should be some new crimes created to patch up holes in the state’s Swiss cheese laws on corruption. They recommend that failure to report bribery be a criminal offense. Undisclosed self dealing by elected officials who don’t tell the public they may have a financial interest in a particular bill or policy also be considered a crime.  

The commission says it’s continuing several ongoing investigations that give hints of potential criminal corruption. They include a look at how luxury real estate developers got a tax break secretly buried in a law passed last January, and refer to emails from a trade association that sponsored a fundraiser for Assembly Democrats that specifically said contributions of $10,000 per attendee were necessary to get favorable laws enacted and stop terrible ones from happening.

Not all of the Moreland Act commissioners are on board with all of the recommendations. Seven of the 25 offered a dissenting opinion on public campaign financing, saying that because of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding Citizens United, spending by outside groups can no longer be regulated. They say the power of public financing to even the playing field is greatly diminished. They say a candidate can accept public funds and still benefit from unlimited amounts of money spent by independent groups.

Cuomo, reacting to the report, says he’s well aware of the divisions over public campaign financing.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Cuomo said. “Public finance is a policy, political issue.”

Cuomo tried unsuccessfully to convince Republicans in the state Senate to adopt public campaign financing in the 2013 legislative session.

A spokesman for the Senate Republicans points to the dissent among the Moreland Commissioners as one reason for the GOP’s continued opposition to what it’s called taxpayer funded campaigns.  

Cuomo says he is hopeful, though, that lawmakers may agree to some of the other reforms.

“There’s more to do,” Cuomo said.

The Moreland Commission released its report just 24 hours before Cuomo was scheduled to host a major fundraiser with performer Billy Joel, where tickets run as high as $50,000 a person.

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.